Lean machines

Breaking from Taylorism:
May 12, 1995

For most of this century, the chaos in automobile assembly was controlled by breaking complex tasks into a succession of elementary and repetitive ones, organised such that even unskilled labour could cope. That is, the organisational methods associated with Henry Ford's mass production, sometimes called Taylorism, or indeed associated with Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Along with the inexorable logic of de-skilling tasks and the rule of the industrial engineers (remember "time and motion"?) came lack of workforce commitment, poor product quality, inefficient supervisory hierarchies, large and inflexible production batches and stocks, and general shop-floor confrontation.

The Japanese, in rebuilding their industry after the second world war and using advice on best practice from unsung Americans such as W. Edwards Demming, did it better. "Lean production" is the term generally used now to categorise this alternative organisation of mass production which relies on a more flexible and intelligent participation by the workforce. The description comes from the eminently readable book The Machine That Changed The World by J. P. Womack, D. T. Jones and D. Roos. It developed from the Future of the Automobile programme, coordinated since the early 1980s by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Breaking from Taylorism comes from the same stable. Its German authors were part of the future of the automobile programme from the early days. The first version of the book was published in German in 1989; this translation into English includes some updated material though the bulk of the empirical data comes from the period 1983 to 1986.

The book concentrates on comparisons between 17 manufacturing plants belonging to three automobile companies operating in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Germany. The study does not deal with technological changes but with changing work structures and policies for industrial relations, staff rationing and training, reward mechanisms, productivity, quality and the like.

The Japanese model of lean manufacturing, or "Toyotism" as it is called here, is used as a backdrop, but the authors believe that too much has been made of the revolutionary nature of these production methods.

As with any study of this kind, the industrial scene moves so fast that what started as an interest in current practice soon becomes of historical interest only. For example in chapter nine we have the statement: "Although the 1980's may turn out in hindsight to be the years of a decisive turn around in industrial and labour relations (in the UK), adversarial labour relations predominated on the shop floor at the time as our research, a system of direct interest representation by shop stewards".

To anyone familiar with how companies are now working to reduce hierarchical systems, empowering the shop floor, committing to staff development for everyone, and indeed being blessed by the trade unions for doing so, this book may be a reminder of some of the past, stumbling steps.

The study is immensely thorough. A stated aim is to explain what the authors see as the precise determinants and detailed elements of lean production, which they believe the MIT workers did not do sufficiently, thus leaving western companies to flounder in their first attempts to realise lean production. In its sheer detail, arising from the attempt to report four years of interviews in the 17 plants, the book occasionally loses sight of the simplifying concepts which would help to steer the reader through an understanding of the changes under way. This book is therefore complementary to The Machine That Changed The World, which is very strong on the conceptional side. Breaking from Taylorism can be used as a quarry for detailed information on work structures and labour relations policies as they were evolving in the mid-80s in North America and Europe.

Peter Davies is director of the Advanced Technology Centre, University of Warwick.

Breaking from Taylorism:: Changing forms of Work in the Automobile Industry

Author - Ulrich Jurgens, Thomas Malsch, and Knuth Dohse
ISBN - 0 521 40544 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 442pp

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