Lean Production Is Not a Solution
Matt Vidal’s framing of lean production as a neutral technology that provides openings for worker empowerment and participation is mistaken. It is a production system that bolsters the cost-reduction capacities of capitalist employers through an obsessive and competitive regime of intensifying work. As such, it encourages workers to compete against one another and increases their dependence on employers.
Matt Vidal’s recent Catalyst article “The Politics of Lean Production” is a reminder of a disturbing trend among labor leaders and certain segments of the Left: the tendency to address current weakness and defeats by clinging to the coattails of management and employer programs – and projects seeking to enhance the latter’s competitive interests – rather than taking on the difficult task of building worker power in workplaces and communities.
Any serious socialist analysis of the labor movement teaches a simple but powerful lesson: seeking a false sense of security, power, and respect through cosponsoring corporate workplace transformation programs and partnership projects, and hoping that concessions will provide job security, reinforces the weaknesses of union and left movements. These gambits only make us more vulnerable to work intensification, ongoing concessions, multitier workforces, and job losses. Rather than helping us to build working-class solidarity across employers and between private and public sectors, these efforts reinforce our dependence on the market success of individual employers.
Confronting work intensity, the lack of free time, poverty wages, job insecurity, and a diminishing belief that unions and workers can collectively address the realities of workplaces today requires something else. Such efforts demand a movement that represents the independent interests of workers and catalyzes forms of collective resistance, solidarity, and intelligent bargaining while soberly assessing openings, constraints, and political approaches to limit the power of private competition.
It is in this spirit that it was dismaying to find calls to embrace lean production as a road to worker power in the last issue of Catalyst. Vidal contends that lean production can be made to function in the interests of worker participation and workplace democracy, and, moreover, that work intensification and job loss are not key characteristics of lean production but rather the result of managerial prerogatives that harm the “efficiency and productivity” of enterprises in certain situations. Vidal argues that unions can work with managers to make lean production and corporate competitiveness beneficial for everyone. This argument couldn’t be further from the truth.
Lean Production as Neutral Technology
At the core of Vidal’s analysis is his presentation of lean production as an essentially neutral technology – a technology similar to computers or machine tools that is autonomous from its class origin and can be used for the benefit of workers and unions. He says, “lean production should be understood as a general (i.e., not specifically capitalist) development in the forces of production; and [I] present evidence that deskilling, work intensification, and anti-unionism are particular capitalist strategies that are not inherent to lean production.”1 According to Vidal, the essence of lean production is not necessarily about work intensification but about forms of efficiency and productivity that workers can play a role in implementing, making their employers more competitive:
“The primary addition of lean management in this regard is the set of practices that make demand-driven, flow production possible. Specific practices developed by Toyota – kanban control for demand-driven, flow production; small lot sizes; quick changeover – combine with process (“value-stream”) mapping to facilitate the reduction of buffers, hence short breaks for rest and recuperation. But whether these tools are used to intensify the work to unreasonable or dangerous levels is a function of managerial strategy, which is shaped by competitive pressures, incentives, and management logics within particular organizations or sectors.”2
So, Vidal continues, it’s only in particular circumstances that lean production will drive management to intensify work. In others, there are openings for workers and employers to collaborate to make the workplace more efficient and productive, not only without harming the interests of workers but while enriching their work experience and leading to more power.
The description of lean management as neutral or, for that matter, as a “technology” is erroneous. It is a production system, developed for the particular purpose of making capital more competitive. Lean production was originally created by Japanese auto producers to enable them to adapt to an environment of short production runs and small markets, and to take advantage of unions that had been shorn of their militancy, independence, and adversarialism. Lean management put a premium on keeping and protecting scarce financial and material resources, thus minimizing cost. It reengineered work so that it was steady, intense, and driven by a logic of never-ending effort to shave seconds off tasks, as well as a methodological obsession with finding and identifying elements that add value – and those that do not. In lean production, the notion of value is not neutral. Anything that doesn’t add value is defined as “waste” and must be incrementally eliminated through continuous analysis. This is the essence of kaizen.
Waste includes the precious seconds a worker has to rest between tasks, activities that don’t result in the direct transformation of the product or service to increase value, and skills that are not immediately necessary for the flow of the product or service. The result is constant and regular attacks on worker skill and autonomy. Value analysis, moreover, is not static but is – in a word afficionados of lean production love – “dynamic” and has no end point or limit. Takeji Kadota, director and principal consultant of the Japanese Management Association in Tokyo, wrote in 1970, “We disregard the conventional concept of ‘a fair day’s work’ or the significance of 100% performance.”3 And, as the Toyota Production System Manual notes, “every minute has sixty seconds.”4 Those are seconds that can be marshaled in service of producing value-added activity. (Many employers, in fact, use computerized forms of standard data that measure work elements down to hundredths of a second.) Compounding this is lean production’s focus on functional and numerical flexibility. Under lean management, the number of workers can and must be adjusted to the immediate needs of cost reduction, whether through layoffs, doing the same amount of work with fewer workers, or hiring more workers at different rates of pay, benefits, and job security.
The Universality of Lean Production – and its Effects
Lean production and its characteristic features are now used worldwide. This dissemination is partly a result of the defeat of the unions and political movements that challenged it, such as Canadian Auto Workers/Unifor and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. This universalization of lean production can be seen in the ubiquity of lean-driven worldwide corporations such as Walmart and the logistics giant Amazon. It is tied to neoliberal globalization and capital mobility. Constantly reducing labor costs through work intensification is critical to disciplining workers through the power of competition – as an ideology as well as a material weapon.
Vidal’s contention that lean production’s drive to intensify work is characteristic only of workplaces in highly competitive sectors with low profit margins, such as auto assembly, is wrong. In the context of neoliberalism, all industries are subject to the imperatives of intense competition – and there are no sectors that are immune to this feature of lean production. In other words, lean management’s use as a tool to reduce costs and intensify work is not a product of “particular circumstances” but of the current stage of capitalism.
Indeed, almost all forms of private enterprise are enmeshed in a hypercompetitive environment of cost reduction, driven by the ever-present threat of losing market share and investment and facing workplace closure.
In this context, lean production, and the obsessive pursuit of waste elimination in the actual labor of workers, is part and parcel of capital’s drive to cut costs in an environment of competition. Lean management is not the cause of the transformation of work in this manner but a tool in the arsenal of capital. And this tool has real-world implications beyond the assembly line.
Lean production’s obsession with eliminating buffers through “just-in-time” inventory processes has been applied to hospitals, for example, among other health care institutions. Running without adequate reserves of space, materials, medicines, health care workers, and personal protective equipment was a way of adapting to ongoing budget cuts and saving money. It became one of the pivotal reasons that the medical systems and hospitals of the United States and Canada lacked necessary beds, people, and other resources to respond to the dramatic rise in patients during the COVID-19 crisis. The incredible stress and burnout of health care workers and first responders was partly the result of lean practices – ironic for a system that touts its flexibility.
The entire structure of supply chains – sourcing manufacturing components to the lowest-cost producers around the globe – works in tandem with lean production. The breakdown of those supply chains, most recently in the production of computer chips and manufacturing components, remains a challenge as the pandemic continues to reappear in key sourcing spaces like China.
Lean production elements are increasingly being applied in the public sector as well in the face of austerity-driven state budgets cuts. Government institutions, from social services, planning, and regulatory agencies to everyday operations at state, municipal, and federal levels, are increasingly ordered to match private sector levels of efficiency and cost reduction. Competition between elements of the state administration, as well as with private sector service corporations, is used to discipline public sector workers and reduce the time and resources needed to serve the needs of the public.
Control, Discipline, Empowerment, and Resistance
Vidal claims that lean production creates openings for workers to shape “productivity and efficiency” in ways that do not impinge on the quality of their work experience, health and safety, and material outcomes. Indeed, he references unions’ workplace goals, such as work satisfaction, workplace democracy, and that ultimately slippery concept, “empowerment.”But the essay provides little in the way of evidence demonstrating workers having actual power to shape work, products, services, or material outcomes. Productivity, in the context of competitiveness, can only mean replacing workers with technology, more output per worker, fewer workers, and a dedication to constantly reducing costs. Lean production will always seek to accomplish these outcomes – outcomes that are not necessarily the same as the goals of workers or unions – through the waste reduction mantra of constant cost identification and shaving off seconds through reengineered work. But the ways that workers “participate” in these processes are not neutral and are not merely a reflection of happy workers being liberated from nasty managers.
Workers and unions can’t really stop management’s implementation of lean production programs and processes. They have little choice in the matter – employers implement their proprietary (or consultant-outsourced) production systems.
Workers and unions may comply with company-imposed rules and procedures, but the forms and degree of their compliance depend on a number of factors: whether the work reorganization is simply imposed by managers and industrial engineers or if the changes involve worker and union participation. In the latter case, they also depend on the kind and level of union and worker participation. The union could be involved in selling or cosponsoring those changes, or it can lead challenges to the process through collective bargaining or other forms of shop floor resistance.
There are no pure forms of despotic impositions of lean production, where changes are imposed with no effort to explain the necessity of making the workplace more competitive, or without appealing to the normal desire of most workers to put in a good day’s work and produce a decent product or service. And there are no pure forms of voluntary appeals for workers to engage in the process of work reorganization, without workers being made aware of the pressures of competition and what might happen if the labor process isn’t productive enough while they are being offered “empowerment” or participation opportunities.
Given the intensely competitive environment, along with the dreary prospect of lower-paid and less secure forms of gig work available, lean production combines despotic and voluntary approaches. The threat of workplace closure and moving work to lower-cost competitors within the same company, country, or around the world is always present. It is a shadow hanging over workers everywhere, and there is little reference to this reality in Vidal’s essay.
What is really at issue isn’t compliance but forms of compliance, promises of empowerment and participation, along with forms and levels of resistance – none of which are meaningfully explored in Vidal’s essay.
On the flip side is the question of worker resistance and how it fits into lean production. Resistance to increased work intensity is always a feature of lean management (and any regime of work intensification), but the levels and forms of resistance are also related to the type of company program and the role of a union. Individual workers are always looking to find time for rest and ways of performing tasks that allow for small breaks.
There is little sense in this essay of how worker resistance happens – either among individuals or in collective forms – and of how the mix between compliance, active participation, and resistance develops.
In both the theoretical sections of the article and the surveys and worker interviews, it is easy to see common patterns: workers are engaged in carrying out unskilled or semi-skilled tasks in ways that reduce waiting or rest times. The jobs are steady and allow more output in ways that maintain the “flow” that is so prized in the lean production universe. Tending more than one machine and allowing for process time is not a sign of increased skill but of more output per worker. It would seem that the workplaces Vidal sampled include many that are in the early stages of undergoing lean management and many that are now either out of business (maybe they didn’t lean enough) or have broken the joint programs with the union because management preferred the more “despotic” approach.
In these survey reports, we hear little about resistance and a great deal about the embrace of the company’s processes – along with rather thin promises and experiences with empowerment.
Compliance and Resistance with an Independent Union
The work done by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in the 1980s, ’90s, and the first decade of the twenty-first century pointed in a very different direction from the one described by Vidal. The CAW’s approach to lean production involved forms of resistance that functioned within the framework of management-imposed institutional constraints.
At many CAW plants, workers combined compliance, resistance, and empowerment in the sense of wanting to have some input into their work, although the forms of the latter can be much different than what Vidal proposes. What became immediately clear from speaking to workers is that the particular mix of these components and the ongoing struggles around work intensification are shaped by the workplace institutions formed by management and the union in its resistance and recognition of its limitations.
There was a pathbreaking two-year study at the joint GM-Suzuki plant called CAMI Assembly that combined surveys every six months, job studies, and interviews with managers and union representatives. CAMI had assembly line members working in groups, engaged in the kaizen process and all the bells and whistles of lean production.
Workers were hired through a rigorous series of interviews that measured each applicant’s capacity to make decisions but also their beliefs about working in teams, worker empowerment, making the company the most competitive, and principles identified with CAMI. In other words, they were selected partly because of their acceptance of the mantra of lean production and its promises. Many were thrilled with the pledge of having some power over their jobs and the workplace.
The workplace was divided into teams, although it had the layout of a typical assembly line. Workers were able to stop the line if there was a defect or quality problem. The teams met often and discussed production problems. Workers were encouraged to make improvement suggestions and received monetary rewards for those that were accepted.
The findings, which are detailed in Just Another Car Factory?, demonstrate how management mixed a promise of “empowerment” with a constant effort to engineer the teams to find ways of intensifying work and facilitating “efficiency.”5
But things turned out differently than management expected. The workers, increasingly fed up with the insufferable work intensification outcomes, helped to build a strong independent union and challenged the propaganda about competitiveness and common interests with the employer. Essentially, they used the leadership and educational role of a union, along with their communication and analytical abilities – developed in part through the collective processes of working in their teams and across teams – to build unique forms of resistance.
The following is an example of how one team engaged in the process of struggling to reappropriate team members’ own time from the company, analyzing each of their jobs to see how they could gain an extra team member. They made important but limited gains – always subject to further ongoing struggle with the company – using a different form of empowerment, one that challenges rather than embraces lean production. This process was captured in the CAW’s film Working Lean and quoted in the book. A member of a team who is a union leader and activist describes this ongoing struggle:
“They kaizened their area … to create a floater among the team. The guy was moving around, helping everybody, unpackaging stuff, and then the company turned around and started taking the person away when there were head count problems. The team busted their ass to create the position within the team to make it a little easier for themselves. And then as soon as they did it, the company started fucking them by taking it away all the time. And the team exercised its right to refuse unsafe work a couple of times as a result of that.”6
In the above instance, the refusals succeeded in getting the floater returned to the team. There are, in fact, more profound examples of what having some power in the workplace might mean. Swedish trade unionists pioneered forms of group work in Volvo’s Uddevalla plant in the 1990s that allowed small groups of workers to assemble an entire vehicle with a cycle time up to seven hours. It was only possible to develop this project in the face of high unionization and extremely low unemployment levels. Essentially, the union was able to pressure the employer to experiment. When neoliberal globalization hit Sweden and unemployment rose, capital mobility was instituted, and competition became intense, the project was dropped.
The Myth of Progressive Competitiveness
One of the claims made in the 1990s by many social democratic politicians and theorists, corporate consultants, and union advocates about partnership with employers was that there was a form of competitiveness that would enhance the role and interests of workers as well as capital. On the political level, it was argued that enhanced education, training, and state aid could attract a mythical, putative “high-road” investment, supporting well-paid unionized workers producing goods in a democratic workplace.
Of course, this promise never materialized – whether with the decline of the vaunted Mittelstand in Germany, or in Italy’s Emilio-Romagna, or anywhere in the United States and Canada. Cost competitiveness became the rule, as lean production replaced whatever supposedly skill-rich production systems may or may not have really existed.
The promise of attaining competitive success through highly trained workers with high pay, secure work, and dignity in partnership with sympathetic employers (or even with worker ownership) was, in reality, little more than work intensification, attacks on job security, workplace closures, outsourcing to cheaper suppliers, and the creation of multitiered workforces.
Vidal argues that lean production “principles and practices put a premium on cognitive labor and the tacit knowledge of workers. My working hypothesis,” he says, “is that a high-involvement approach to lean production, with substantive, widespread participation of workers in problem-solving and decision-making, is the technical frontier.”7
But the reality is different there as well. The question is, “What problems are workers invited to ‘solve,’ and what constitutes them being ‘solved’?” Given the nature of the production process, competition, capital mobility, and the tools of lean production, the answer is obvious: it is engaging workers in the process of figuring out (using their tacit knowledge) how to intensify their work and reduce and eliminate the numbers and security of the workforce.
Involving the Union
One of the elements of Vidal’s argument is that unions can play a constructive role in facilitating and negotiating worker empowerment and participation in lean production. Of course, as the bargaining agent and collective organization of workers, unions can’t simply stand by and allow management to reorganize the workplace without intervening in some way. But there are different ways of negotiating worker interests and developing independent demands in dealing with lean production, some of which I will discuss below. The approach suggested in Vidal’s essay, however, is different. One of the authorities he relies on is material from Andy Banks and Jack Metzgar’s 1980s work at the Midwest Center for Labor Research.8 Summarizing their arguments from a 1989 pamphlet, Vidal writes that “Unions should make the case that by prioritizing work intensification and failing to substantively empower labor, capitalist management is harming organizational efficiency. Union co-management of lean systems would improve organizational performance.”9 He then proposes a set of principles for a joint-union management project around lean production. The principles include:
a) “Unions should adopt cost reduction as a goal … a basis for overlapping interests and partnership” with the union, which can “articulate its own approach to cost reduction” that doesn’t involve “labor cost cutting and exclusively short-term considerations”;
b) “Management must acknowledge that the union aims to gain influence over … all areas of the company”;
c) “Management must accept that … programs and practices should advance traditional union goals of increased job security, increased wages and benefits, and improved working conditions”;
d) Independent union coordinators;
e) An organizing model to support the union’s goals.10
This model undermines the key strengths and power of unions and ends up selling management’s lean production goals. The vision assumes that a successful capitalist enterprise – in terms of profit and competitiveness – is a goal of a union. It is not. Certainly, unions are dependent on the relative success of a given employer or sector, but the goal of an independent union is not to enhance that dependence but to limit it through solidarity across sectors and the working class, not by strengthening the employer’s competitive position.
Adopting cost reduction as a goal means endorsing the inevitable pull of competition. There is no “progressive” way of engaging in competitive cost reduction. By making that your goal, you have already given up the fight for workers. Influencing management at different levels could mean challenging them or it could mean pressuring them to be more effective at what you have both adopted as your goal: cost reduction. It is almost as if Vidal is making a distinction between “bad” management that is not adequately reducing costs and “good” management that is doing it effectively, which the union will support and advocate for. But, like Jane Slaughter and Mike Parker wrote in the already cited Labor Research Review pamphlet in response to Banks and Metzgar, this is not the role of a union.11
At the end of the day, it is impossible to carve out work organization as exempt from cost reduction, and it is naive to think this is possible within the parameters of competitive capitalism. Management can recognize the traditional goals of unions, but they see them as costs – which they are – and will never prioritize them. Having an independent union coordinator means nothing. Most problematic is the way Banks and Metzgar (and Vidal) define an “organizing model.” Unbelievably, they believe it means organizing workers to lobby with shareholders and communities or use militant tactics to embarrass ineffective managers and push for more effective ways of cutting costs!12
The CAW’s programs to challenge lean production in the 1990s and 2000s were much different. The union’s goal wasn’t to help management cut costs. Realizing that it couldn’t stop lean production from coming into workplaces, CAW had a multipronged strategy of bargaining limitations on management’s agenda. One could characterize this as a form of cooperation, but it occurred through bargaining and started from a very different place than the one articulated by Vidal, Banks and Metzgar, and others like them. It included:
- Clear statements of the union’s goals and interests, as part of any bargained agreement;
- Having management pay for members’ union education – independent of the employer – about the nature and goals of lean production and ways of challenging efforts to intensify work;
- Acknowledging that there is a difference between “team concept,” which is an effort to pressure workers to intensify work, and working in teams or small groups. With an independent union agenda and presence, teamwork can be made to facilitate workers’ ability to use collective efforts to limit intensification, improve working conditions, and push for adequate staffing to limit peer pressure. This is what unions did at CAMI and Mazda’s Flat Rock plant in Michigan (in the latter case, United Auto Workers);
- Bargaining pilot projects in specific locations inside the workplace, with limited time frames and clearly understood ground rules;
- Closely analyzing and monitoring planned management programs and bargaining limits to management power;
- Identifying jobs that are particularly intense and difficult and negotiating ways of improving them; Realizing that a “militant refusal” of any compromise is usually not possible – but if the union educates the membership and provides space for the rank and file to challenge management’s unilateral power to impose work intensification, power can be built over time.
This program was facilitated by a larger union education program on challenging the team concept, lean production, and efforts to get the workers to buy into the principles of competitiveness. The educational component emphasized that competitiveness isn’t something to embrace but rather must be recognized as a constraint. Unions are sometimes forced to make compromises that they wouldn’t voluntarily make.
A successful union strategy also requires limiting and building beyond dependence on employers’ competitiveness, through collective action to learn what our limits are and how to push them forward, and to bring workers into political projects that curb employer power.
The union’s insistence on its independent principles and set of demands is essential when bargaining agreements on how to handle lean production. Whether agreements work for an extended time or the employer decides to refuse to deal with the union, bargaining provides a way for workers and unions to deal with these situations and allows them to move forward.
In the end, Vidal summarizes his long-term goal: to build a partnership with capital that redefines efficiency in ways that exclude forms of cost savings that “negatively impact worker health and safety” and the environment:
“Rather than fighting productivity and efficiency as inherently bad for labor, unions should politicize them and offer a vision for achieving flexibility and continuous improvement via a high-involvement approach with institutionalized forms of worker participation – supported by their own performance analyses and proposals for process improvements, and backed by social movements and militant tactics.”13
As a socialist and a Marxist with decades of work in the union movement, I couldn’t disagree more with this kind of effort to bolster capitalist employers. It is the very antithesis of a healthy, independent, and class-struggle-oriented approach for the trade union movement. Instead, it strengthens the forces that encourage workers to compete against one another, increases workers’ dependence on their employers, and confuses and compromises clear thinking and the kind of analysis necessary to challenge employers.
There is nothing here about dramatically increasing the social wage, eliminating tiering of the workforce, lessening workers’ ties to the boss, bringing key sectors into public ownership, limiting capital mobility, or producing carbon-free goods that could serve social uses, such as mass transit and integrating into a larger planned economic project. This might introduce real possibilities for different worker roles in every stage of the process, keeping the interests of the class as a whole in mind. Vidal’s vision is about making neoliberal capitalism work for a group of workers – hardly the future that socialists hope to build.
I close with a proverb popular with auto management in the ’90s. It is still being used:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens. He has only one thought on his mind: to be able to run faster than the fastest lion. If he cannot, he will be eaten.
Every morning in Africa, a lion awakens. He has only one thought on his mind: to be able to run faster than the slowest gazelle. If he cannot, he will die of hunger.
Whether you choose to be a gazelle or a lion is of no consequence. It is enough to know that, with the rising of the sun, you must run. And you must run faster than you did yesterday, or you will die. •
This article first published in Catalyst, Vol. 6 No. 1.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 41.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 55–56.
- Takeji Kadota, “Performance Analysis and Control” (Tokyo: Asian Productivity Organization, 1970), 106.
- Cited in Canadian Auto Workers, “Taking on Lean Production,” 1991.
- James Rhinehart, Christopher Huxley, and David Robertson, Just Another Car Factory? Lean Production and Its Discontents, Ithaca, Cornell University Press: 1997.
- Rhinehart, Huxley, and Robertson, Just Another Car Factory?, 153.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 37.
- Andy Banks and Jack Metzgar, “Participating in Management: Union Organizing on a New Terrain,” Labor Research Review 1, no. 14 (1989): 12.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 38.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 56.
- Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, “Dealing With Good Management,” Labor Research Review 1, no. 14 (1989): 73.
- Banks and Metzgar, “Participating in Management,” 44–5.
- Vidal, “The Politics of Lean Production,” 69.