The Mature Phase of Lean Production and the Future of Work

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2020)


lean production; labor and employment relations' social sciences


The purpose of our paper is to look at the impact of mature lean practices on employment and labor relations in the auto industry. We will use two approaches to analyse the impact of lean practice on the past, present and future of work. The social sciences perspective will cover some positive aspects of lean (such as teamwork, job rotation, job enrichment, job satisfaction etc.) and some negative aspects (work intensification, excessive overtime and the extensive use of temporary workers). The industrial relations and human resources perspectives on lean production tries to balance the management and the worker approaches to lean production. Both often simultaneously focus on efficiency and worker protection (pay and benefits, safety, job security, retirement, etc.). In the first area, labor unions often play an important role in the industrial relations approach to lean systems, but as unionization in the United States has declined precipitously with Southern industrialization, industrial relations have morphed into considering non-union shops and HR approaches. Over time, these two groups are starting to overlap in a number of different ways, especially as unionization continues its decline. Closely related to the HR approach to employee relations is the social psychology discipline housed in most psychology departments. This approach has focused on teamwork from a largely psychological approach to group processes, unlike socio-technical theory, which examines the intrinsic groupness of teamwork. Most importantly, these approaches emphasize mechanisms for protecting and motivating workers and employees generally.
Lean production can be summarized as follows: (1) company decisions are based on a long-term philosophy because managers want leaders and exceptional workers who thoroughly understand their work and company philosophy; (2) tasks are standardized on an assembly-line making them amenable to visual control using thoroughly tested technologies and processes; (3) just-in-time inventory (JIT) systems create a production process with continuous flow, which will bring problems to the surface especially through a pull rather than push system; (4) a trusted network of suppliers is integrated into the planning, design and production process including JIT; (5) team cultures produce quality the first time but stop the production process to fix problems using consensus to make slower but more implementable decisions; (6) permanent employees are buffered by temporary employees who fill in for sick or injured team members and are let go during times of economic recession (Liker 2004; Liker and Ogden 2011; Lepadatu and Janoski 2011; Besser 1996).
While the word lean connects to points 3 on JIT and 6 on buffering, the points about long-term philosophy, job rotation and flexibility, and quality control teams do not denote anything particularly connected to the word “lean.” As a result, the term “lean” is not the best description of Toyotism processes. Perhaps ‘lean, long-term and loyal’ (LLL) would be more appropriate, but since lean has such strong hold on the literature, we use it. Lean production is different from Fordism in two additional ways. First, job rotation, cross-training, multiple skills and teamwork show the lean model as being antithetical to the rigid division of labor of Fordism (Jaffee 2001).
We believe that the lean production system is now the dominant model in the division of labor, and the one that all companies strive for even though many of them will fall considerably short. Just as Fordism was not present everywhere, lean production is now the gold standard for the vast majority of firms. However, this is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. Firms in different countries will adapt their model of lean production to meet the cultural inclinations of their managers and workers. However, once those are met, lean production in its various forms including strong and lesser models is the gold standard for quality and efficiency.
An overall conclusion about the lean production system requires a combination of critical and praiseworthy points. On the one hand, criticism comes from lean production exerting a great deal of pressure and stress on workers, especially with mandatory overtime and exacting requirements concerning quality and cycle times. The work, despite job rotation, can be quite repetitive and carpal tunnel injuries are common, along with occasional back injuries and accidents. On the other hand, workers in Japanese transplants appreciate the teamwork approach, the equalization of perks, and the job security that this type of lean production offers to them (but this does not apply to temporary workers). In their account of diversity in a lean production environment at a Japanese auto transplant, Lepadatu and Janoski (2011) show that workers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs and infrequently criticize the company. There is stress, but the long hours and job intensification create a team culture that is not present in the Fordist environment. The strongest downside appears to come from injured workers who are often pressured to get back to work, and the temporary workers who have no job security. However, given these stresses and conflicts, scholars need to recognize both the positive and negative aspects of this new and dominant form of the division of labor.

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