World Class Involvement: Workers’ Participation in a 4.0 Lean Production System

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2019)


Similarly to the former debate on Lean Production (LP) and High Performance Work Practices (HPWP), the current discussion on Industry 4.0 is characterized by two contrasting stances. On the one hand, some scholars tend to assume that, notwithstanding the possibly negative effects on the number of jobs (see, for example, Frey and Osborne 2013), the introduction of new technologies and the new organizational models connected with them might produce opportunities for job enrichment, the diffusion of participatory systems, the increase of the cognitive contribution of workers and the reduction of hierarchical levels (Agolla, 2018, Buer et al. 2018, Sony, 2018) On the other hand, some literature identifies the risk that the new organizational processes enabled by these new technologies might generate greater standardization, intensification of work and more pervasive mechanisms of control by the management (Butollo et al. 2018, Degryse 2016).
This contribution wants to contribute to this debate by focusing on the mechanisms of workers’ involvement and the changes in the company's hierarchical structure adopted within the framework of the World Class Manufacturing system introduced in the plants of the FCA-CNH group since the late 2000s. The study is based on the analysis of over 160 semi-structured interviews with workers employed in different Italian plants of the companies FCA, CNH and Magneti Marelli which were carried out within the framework of a research initiative fostered and supported by the trade union FIOM-CGIL, which also entailed a survey with more than 9,000 respondents. Qualitative interviews aimed at exploring how workers experienced and perceived different aspects of their work and the transformations that have taken place after the introduction of the WCM system, in particular concerning mechanisms of involvement, teamwork, job rotation, job enrichment, and changes in their companies' hierarchical structures.
First, we will show that despite the corporate rhetoric on workers’ involvement and their cognitive contribution, workers’ interviews bring to light a critical picture in terms of worker’s participation, which is predominantly considered as ritualistic. The interviews clearly highlight different organisational mechanisms which tend to restrain an effective participation by workers and the presence of a constant friction between involvement and production targets.
Second, we will highlight a diffused perception of work intensification connected with the introduction of the WCM system and its enrichment agenda, particularly concerning the redistribution of indirect activities to direct production workers. In fact, it seems to emerge a clear tendency on behalf of workers to consider recent technological and organizational transformations more as a source of stress, than of enrichment, also due to the tightening of working time which is also part of the WCM agenda. Finally, the interviews show how the new organizational articulations based on the centrality of the figure of the Team Leader, considered a primus inter pares within workers' teams, do not seem to correspond to a process of de-hierarchization, but rather to a reorganization of the hierarchical structure and a change of the corporate system of coordination and control.

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