Means of production

February 6, 1998

Rick Delbridge (pictured) spent four months on two factory production lines observing Japanese management techniques. He tells Kate Worsley why they just don't work.

These days we all know someone whose working life has been invaded by the people from quality control, by their exhortations to greater exertion and community of effort. "Japanisation" is the term for its most extreme manifestation, a rigorous erosion of the characteristic sociability of the British workforce.

Although management-speak is now everywhere, the front line in quality control is on the factory floor. Rick Delbridge, a research fellow at Cardiff Business School, decided to test how the tenets of quality control held up in reality by going to work on a production line. One aim was to contrast Japanese-style management, now widespread in British companies, with the traditional British approach.

Delbridge spent three months with a struggling car components manufacturer which he codenamed Valleyco, and lasted a month making televisions at "Nippon CTV", a Japanese-run factory. The experience proved life-changing for a man whose work experience outside higher education was limited to summer jobs with Marks & Spencer. "It was more mundane, repetitive, and harder than I had expected, more soul-destroying to work on a line in a dreary factory for day after day, than I can articulate," he says. "When I left, my admiration for those people and my despair at the wasting of their talents was complete."

Beneath the official acronyms and pep talks, Delbridge found workers at both plants struggling to keep their jobs, productivity bonuses and self-respect. He found ineffectual unions, distracted middle management under pressure to meet impossible targets, and bosses who, despite paying lip-service to worker involvement, constantly failed to understand the realities of the shopfloor.

"At Valleyco they were introducing Japanese-style techniques but when I got there I realised it was a long way from the model,'' recalls Delbridge.Workers let it be known that they considered management to be pretty incompetent, to the extent of tying up one particularly bossy manager and leaving him in a skip on the eve of the Christmas break.

And while Nippon CTV had imposed stringent quality controls and a whole new framework of worker participation, the plant shared many of Valleyco's tensions. In place of a traditional rule book, with predetermined punishments for infractions, unsatisfactory workers were taken to the coffee lounge to be "counselled". But the communication was one way - these sessions were merely exhortations to greater effort. Similarly, at so-called team meetings no one except the managers spoke.

At both plants, management initiatives met with largely foreseeable human reactions that more often than not thwarted their intention. Delbridge observed that, in their efforts to manage more efficiently, managements have largely misunderstood the key part played by an individual's response to incentive and pressure. He discovered dynamics between workers - such as being seen to try, not showing others up, the importance of fair treatment - that exert as great if not a greater influence on work patterns than any management exhortations. He also sees the process of Japanisation in Britain as limited. The Japanese have taken advantage of cheap labour here by exporting their highly-automated tasks and regulated working patterns but not their more highly-skilled tasks and worker-involvement practices.

Delbridge's findings corroborate earlier research showing that the traditional piece-work system - whereby work is paid for by the amount produced - is not efficient. If tasks are too difficult workers give up, too easy and they slacken off. But the harsher environment of the Japanese firm erodes workers' confidence and morale. Increased quality surveillance inculcated a culture of blame, in which every one knew who had let "the team" down. This in itself damaged the team ethos.

The holy grail of "quality" proved to be a powerful legitimising tool for management, enabling the acceptance of changes shown to improve quality. It also acted as a motivating goal for individual workers. Many would set themselves very high goals for their own satisfaction. Regimes that threatened quality also lessened workers' respect for management.

Delbridge found that his "up close and personal" research method allowed access to a truer picture than any amount of interviewing. It also brought home how crucial the human factor was to workers' experience of their jobs and to their performance. "If you are spending eight hours a day making windscreen wipers," he says, "it's your social relations that get you through the day.'' For workers inured to low incomes, "personality clashes and useless management piss them off as much as low pay".

Being an educated male outsider in a female-dominated workforce could easily have created problems for Delbridge, who developed a nasty twitch in his cheek for the first few week at Valleyco. "I didn't look like them or sound like them. It was very, very important to identify friendly faces who would vouch for me. I'm quite open and chatty, but you also have to modify who you are, be attentive, be committed." He earned respect by showing his willingness to work and trust by being open about his personal life. His Marks & Spencer holiday experience, stock of card games learnt in his mum's pub and height, youth and good looks stood him in good stead and he soon found himself adopted and confided in.

A certain bitterness became apparent in most of the women he worked with. They were simultaneously aware that they had the potential to disrupt the flow of work and resigned to their subordination. Their rejection of management aims was demonstrated in largely symbolic ways. "They looked back wistfully on their education and how they had responded to it," Delbridge recalls. "They felt let down by the system and that they had let themselves down and that was why they were there, stuck in a dead-end job."

His anger and disappointment at the human cost of manufacturing has lingered. He would probably feel "uncomfortable" now, he feels, working as a management consultant, in "a system that improves the control of people".He is about to do a major research project with the Trades Union Congress on organising its training and recruitment.

"If managers want to learn from their workers", he reasons, "they will have to start treating them differently so that the workers feel inclined to give up their knowledge".

Rick Delbridge's experiences are recorded in his forthcoming book Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing, Oxford University Press. The factory names are fictitious.


A day in Rick Delbridge's job at Valleyco, a struggling car component factory

Whole families work at this 20-year-old factory - there are precious few jobs to be had elsewhere locally. But it's not doing well, under pressure from foreign competition. Attempts are being made to reform an out-of-touch management and customers like Peugeot have become directly involved in the production of their lines, but the piecework system still rules.

7am: Get a lift into work from Sue, with whom I lodge. It's snowing.

8am: Clock on and report to the chargehand for my work sheet. This details the priority jobs for the day. I have a huge job: making valves - it's dead fiddly and I'm sure I won't be able to make my "numbers". No bonus for me then. Pounds 4.60 makes a difference when you're on Pounds 104 a week.

Set to on the valves. Michelle and my auntie Gayle, who have been here for 10 and 15 years respectively, are powering through their jobs. They even take a fag break at 10, knowing they're well on target to making their numbers. I put off going to the loo trying to get the hang of the valves.

The radio comes on the loudspeakers. We get an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Before Christmas they left it on for a few hours by mistake. "That'll be our Xmas bonus then," said Michelle. We all listen to "Our Tune" on Radio 1. Some people get themselves into some right emotional messes. If their significant song is Lionel Ritchie I'll be humming it all day.

12 noon: Michelle and Gayle go off to the canteen for early lunch. I concentrate on the valves. You've got to show willing, haven't you? Even though, if I mess a load up, Mary on quality control is on the piecework system too - and gets paid for how many she tests rather than how many wrong 'uns she finds. I wouldn't want these on my car, she says to me, but they go through anyway.

12.40pm: I take my sandwiches off to the canteen. We do The Sun crossword,have a fag and chat about 'Our Tune' and how cold it is in the shop. Last week we all walked out it was so cold. Turned out someone sabotaged the heating units.

1.10pm: Back on the shopfloor everyone's jaw's chattering and not because of the cold. The pace always slackens after lunch, it gets quite raucous sometimes. My arm is killing me though, pulling the jig arm to press the valves together, but there's no point working for the bonus, the numbers are just too high. So I slacken off too.

4.15pm: We start packing away. Either you have made your numbers by now or there is no point trying.

4.25pm: The buzzer. I'm off to queue up and get out of here.

A day at the Nippon TV manufacturing factory under Japanese management.

The Nippon "transplant" firm took over a UK factory five years ago with 300 workers culled (on a no-strike basis) from the original 2,500 strong workforce. It's grown to 1,000 and is less friendly than it used to be. The Japanese keep the pressure up, but it's a secure job, unlike most in this area.

8am: The buzzer goes for the morning "team meeting". A run-through of any problems and a pep talk about targets. Any questions? No one speaks, as usual.

8.05am: The buzzer goes for us to line up. We all work facing a moving production line. I've got seconds to insert 12 ten pence-piece sized components in a TV circuit board the size of a copy of Bella magazine before it moves on up the line. There's not much chat, you can't really turn your head to talk to your neighbour. Most of us bring in personal stereos anyway.

11 am: From now on we have 3-minute long staggered breaks for us to leave the line and use the loo. But we all refuse to go while 'Our Tune' is on - most of us listen to it on our head-sets.

1pm: We all get an hour for lunch.

2pm: We get into a bit of a dispute about that bloke on 'Our Tune' this morning. I thought he was a real wimp. Ann judges from the noise we're making that she can turn the speed of the line up a bit. So now we have to concentrate more to avoid making mistakes.

3pm: There's hardly any talking, but Ann still keeps the speed up. Can't blame her - her target is 104 per cent efficiency, so she has to keep us working faster than the engineers calculated so as not to get any grief from higher up. But we're not robots.

4pm: The mistakes really start now. If you make too many mistakes you get a yellow warning card over your seat. Very public. Not as stupid as that Japanese bloke's idea of awarding us a pink origami swan to stick up there if we'd done really well.

Forty plus mistakes in a month (in 200,000 insertions) and you're out. Janie, my work neighbour, made 40 last month and was taken into the coffee lounge and "counselled". "Told to improve or else, basically," she said.

4.50pm: Christine at the end of the line calls out "ten minutes to go!" We're all expected to do overtime, or at least have a good excuse. Christine always says: "No way - tonight's my sex night!" 4.59pm: 50-second count down I We're out of here.

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