Thirty Years of Lean Production: The Making of a New Managerial Ideology

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 5:30 PM
Room: 415
Oral Presentation
Christopher HUXLEY , Sociology and International Development Studies, Trent University, Peterborough, ON, Canada
Employers have been implementing lean production (LP) outside of Japan for more than 30 years. This production system has been researched, debated and contested throughout this period, while the concept has been applied well beyond the automobile industry to other work environments.

The paper critically surveys the literature with an emphasis on empirical investigations of how workers, and where they have existed, unions, have responded to LP. The author was a co-investigator for one of the first longitudinal research studies of a transplant joint-venture LP automobile factory in North America.

30 years of LP allow for a comparison with three managerial ideologies discussed by Reinhard Bendix (1956,1974): scientific management, human relations, and the communist party and trade-union sponsored "worker-activist movement" in post-Second World War East German industry. Bendix views each of these movements as both organizational and ideological. Those in authority advanced each technique as a way to improve efficiency, while simultaneously presenting the policies as having redeeming social value. Each ideology also identified a role and mission for managers.

Based on research in Canada, the United States and Mexico, the paper applies Bendix’s framework to consider LP as a new managerial ideology. First, managers assert the superiority of LP, as measured by efficiency and quality of output. Second, proponents point to the success in transposing LP techniques from the Japan prototype to work organizations around the globe. Furthermore, managers of non-union and unionized enterprises alike have been able to introduce LP into their workplaces. Third, LP supporters have claimed that their system provides for skill development, increased employee participation and an enhanced quality of work life.

The paper assesses each of these three sets of claims. Finally, the paper gives consideration to how worker resistance has sometimes brought about change in the operation of LP.