Lean Manufacturing in the Auto Industry: Kaizening Ourselves to Death

(I hope that the reader will appreciate that this particular essay is several years old.-R.R.)

Reuben Roth

Sociology 1953

for Prof. David Livingstone

January 16, 1995

The technology has made it easier...I think my concern is your state of mind. You get frustrated when you can't have thirty seconds to yourself. They'll play with your emotions, nonstop..trapped on the line. Unidentified General Motors Truck Plant worker "A", Personal interview, 6 Jan. 1995.


Globalization, recession, the transformation of the former Soviet Union and the weakening of the North American labour movement have all contributed to a feeling of general unease and insecurity among the working-class. According to Glasbeek and Tucker it is within an environment of economic and employment uncertainty similar to that which Canadians are currently experiencing, that employers introduce programs such as lean production with little effective resistance from individual workers or organized labour.

The superior economic power of employers who may withdraw their capital if they deem conditions unfavourable imposes clear limits on what any particular group of workers can hope to achieve. Glasbeek and Tucker, 27.

In this paper I will examine the transformation of automobile assembly and worker attitudes through the relatively new concept and methods of lean production or lean manufacturing techniques. I will do this by means of a review of some relevant literature, a short history of lean manufacturing and participation programs and a sampling of interviews with General Motors (G.M.) Oshawa Assembly Plant workers. I will also draw from my own experience on the G.M. assembly line in Oshawa.

I will also examine the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) study of the G.M. CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ontario. The CAMI experience served as an initial test site for lean manufacturing techniques and events there point the way to the future of automotive production processes to manufacturers and workers alike. According to CAW local 222 officials, the implementation of Synchronous Manufacturing in the Oshawa General Motors facility has, thus far, been quite successful from the corporation's point of view.

Lean production techniques were first introduced into the General Motors (G.M.) Oshawa Assembly Plant in 1986, under the rubrick of 'team concept'. Eventually team concept was integrated in G.M.'s 'Synchronous Manufacturing' program in 1992. Despite the variation in terminology, Synchronous Manufacturing embodies all of the fundamental characteristics of lean manufacturing. According to G.M., the features of Synchronous Manufacturing are

the combination of total quality, material flow, man and machine effectiveness, quick set-ups, just in time scheduling, preventive maintenance, employee involvement, supplier management, management by sight, and training which leads to increased production by elimination disruption (sic) to the productive process. Rick Roberts, "Devastation Caused by Synchronous!" The Oshaworker Jan. 1995: 28.

All of these goals certainly seem laudable. There are, after all, few who would disagree with the elimination of waste or increased training. On the surface the appeal of participation programs such as Synchronous Manufacturing is high. Parker and Slaughter point out that

the explicit aim of participation programs is to have the participant identify with the program itself because the process fulfills a number of worker desires. With this kind of motivation, the ends are not as important as the means; the outcome is not as important as the group process. Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering (Detroit: Labour Notes, 1994) 125.

Participation programs fill a variety of workers' needs. Group solidarity, meaning in work, identification and pride in productive labour are just a few of these needs. Indeed, Parker and Slaughter suggest that unions cannot fight participation programs without filling these needs themselves. But Parker and Slaughter here do not acknowledge what it is that management wants.

Assembly workers' lives are composed of uninterrupted boredom and meaningless, disconnected actions. With little or nothing but a newspaper, radio or idle chat to take up their time, workers relieve boredom by discovering solutions to their jobs' tedium. Workers find their own shortcuts and improvements because they have the time and intimate knowledge to do so. Workers are filled with ideas on how to improve their jobs, but in the past nobody ever asked them for their views. Assembly workers are in fact the true experts on the intricacies of their particular task.

Lean manufacturing and participation programs seek to obtain workers' 'secrets' and use them to further their profits. The appeal to workers to take up management's offer of participation is tremendous. But the real goal of lean manufacturing programs such as Synchronous Manufacturing is outlined by G.M.'s Mechanical Components Division as

A systematic way of rapidly converting raw material into profit in concert with market demand, by processing products quickly and smoothly with non-value added functions eliminated. Roberts, 28.

The participatory appeal of Synchronous is the draw, but the goal of programs like Synchronous is simply profit through elimination of "non-value added functions." The participatory component of Synchronous or lean manufacturing is an important part of their design.

Lean Manufacturing: History and Origins

The concept of lean production was originally introduced into the business world's vocabulary in a report which was the final result of a five-year, five million dollar International Motor Vehicle Program (I.M.V.P.) study released in 1990 by Womack, Jones and Roos. In their study, which was circulated as a shortened book entitled "The Machine that Changed the World," they define lean production as:

"lean" because it uses less of everything compared with mass production--half the human effort in the factory, half the manufacturing space, half the investment in tools, half the engineering hours to develop a new product in half the time. Also, it requires keeping far less than half the needed inventory on site, results in many fewer defects, and produces a greater and ever growing variety of products. Womack et al., 13. Designed both to eliminate waste and constantly improve production output and quality, lean production has been touted as a remedy for virtually all of North America's economic ills. In fact, lean production can be see as simply a wholesale extension of an ultra-Taylorist, ultra-Fordist rationalization of the workplace.

We agree that a properly organized lean-production system does indeed remove all slack--that's why it's lean. But it also provides workers with the skills they need to control their work environment and the continuing challenge of making the work go more smoothly...lean production offers a creative tension in which workers have many ways to address challenges. This creative tension involved in solving complex problems is precisely what has separated manual factory work from professional "think" work in the age of mass production. Womack et al., 101-2.

On the surface the above I.M.V.P. statement appears to echo the collective cry of workers involved in repetitive tasks on the factory floor for more challenging responsibilities on the job. Advocates of lean production claim that this form of organizing the workplace makes jobs more challenging, permits workers to inspect their own work as well as the work of others, grants workers the 'freedom' to perform minor maintenance chores and allows workers to move between jobs easily and frequently. This last claim is lean production's key (and perhaps singular) assertion with respect to health and safety: workers are not tied to a single repetitive job which will strain the same muscles, ligaments and body parts until a workplace injury results. But the term "creative tension" introduces more questions than answers. Womack et al. are vague about what is meant by the term "creative tension," but the answer may be found in a joint 1993 study which was conducted by a Canadian Auto Workers research group.

The CAW study was predictably scathing in its condemnation of lean manufacturing techniques. Titled "The CAMI Report: Lean Production in a Unionized Auto Plant," the study examined the joint manufacturing venture between General Motors and Suzuki located in Ingersoll, Ontario. Their view took rather a different outlook on a similarly designed auto assembly plant:

From the shop floor the jobs look different. They are repetitive and machine paced. Job design is premised on rigidly prescribed routines and short cycle times and conforms to an industrial engineering set of strictures: jobs must be broken down into small units of discrete tasks; each job must have a detailed definition so that it can be easily reassigned; each job must be balanced in terms of time; the skill level required for each task must be limited so that it can be learned quickly. Robertson et al., 9.

Although on the surface it might be claimed by proponents of lean manufacturing that multitasking provides workers with a variety of skills, the workers themselves reported that it mattered little whether they drilled fenders or doors: the operation itself was identical and 'multiskilling' was a sham. According to Stephen Wood of the London School of Economics:

The value of the lean production system is justified on four main grounds: Firstly, as it is more flexible it can be more responsive to consumer demands and hence offer more variety for the consumer. Second it will be more productive than conventional methods...we are told that lean production uses 'half' of everything compared with conventional production methods...Third, lean production is justified on the basis that it provides satisfying work. Wood, Stephen (1993), "The Lean Production Model," paper presented at The Lean Workplace Conference, Port Elgin Ontario, September-October, 1993, 2.

It is on this last point of worker satisfaction that management restructuring attempts to address itself. Anticipating the inevitable backlash, Womack et al write that

Lean production is a superior way for humans to make things. It provides better products in wider variety at lower cost. Equally important, it provides more challenging and fulfilling work for employees at every level, from the factory to the headquarters..it follows that the whole world should adapt lean production, and as quickly as possible. Womack as cited in Wood, 3.

Wood argues that from the point of view of the assembly worker, the concept of lean production seems to fit more comfortably under the label of "neo-Fordism." Wood also makes it clear that he feels the term "post-Fordism" suggests a more radical break than is actually experienced by these Japanese production methods. He explains that the starting point for a fundamental change and a transformation in workers' roles was suggested to him by an American executive of a large multinational who suggested "the next real breakthrough will be when workers are involved in the design of the car." Wood, 24. This innovation and a wholesale break from the Fordist and Taylorist auto manufacturing assembly methods would indeed be a welcome relief for workers.

It appears that lean production does nothing to address real worker empowerment. It was never designed to do so. Instead lean production increases the stresses of traditional manufacturing and places an extra burden on the assembly worker, in place of the level of middle management supervisors which lean manufacturing is designed to eliminate.

Lean Manufacturing: A Fragile Balancing Act

Simply put lean production is fragile. Mass production is designed with buffers everywhere -- extra inventory, extra space, extra workers -- in order to make it function. Even when parts don't arrive on time or many workers call in sick or other workers fail to detect a problem before the product is mass produced, the system still runs. However, to make lean production with no slack -- no safety net -- work at all, it is essential that every worker try very hard. Womack, James P., Jones, Daniel T., Roos, Daniel, The Machine that Changed the World (Toronto: Collier Macmillan, 1990), 102-3.

Lean production techniques are intentionally a delicate balance between the stresses of production placed upon workers and a constant threat of parts shortages and demands for ever-increasing levels of quality. This 'fragility' is a key built-in feature of lean production. Lean production is intended to reveal any weaknesses in the chain of production, unlike mass production which is

...a "robust" system that relies on buffers of all kinds -- high inventories, large stockpiles between work stations, excessive space, including large repair areas, and a corps of relief workers to cover for absentees. The objectives of lean production are to strip away these buffers, to reduce costs and to involve more systematically in production. This is accomplished by a series of connected practices...Just in time (JIT) or synchronous production minimizes buffers by making only what is needed at the amount needed at the necessary time. Robertson, David and The CAW Research Group on CAMI, Japanese Production Management in a Unionized Auto Plant: Final Report to Labour Canada (Toronto: CAW Research Department ,1992), 14.

This means that lean production relies on an industrial workforce which doesn't get sick, doesn't get tired, doesn't suffer from industrial accidents or injury and has an unremitting capacity for working at full 'intensity' well over forty hours per week (overtime is a key feature of lean production plants). Clearly Womack's and company's 'dream' is a nightmare for the industrial worker. As Wells puts it,

lean production relies on workers to speed themselves up, to provide suggestions for continuous improvements, to pressure each other, and so on. Wells, 8.

The constant, 'engineered-in' pressure on workers to continually perform their duties at a peak speeds and output of strength also has the effect of limiting the gender makeup of the workforce largely to men -- despite the claims of manufacturers who cite the increased use of robotics as opening up assembly jobs for women. Robertson et al. note that there was a fair measure of resentment toward the women in the plant who were not rotated to some of the more difficult jobs. Besides the constant pressure to maintain an extremely high degree of control over the pace of workers' movements during production, lean production methods force workers to incrementally and constantly increase their output. Robertson et al. report that it is virtually impossible for workers to ignore production problems.

Lean production places on workers the burden of rapid, error-free performance...(it)..involves tight management control of production and work allocation, which limits the ability of workers to regulate the pace at which they work. Robertson et al., 14.

Lean production and its variants have dramatically changed the appearance of the assembly line. Workers no longer endure the rigours of the line standing shoulder to shoulder, working and socializing simultaneously. Today's lean assembly line has workers spread far apart in isolated solitude, sometimes overseeing several robots at once and sometimes jumping in and out of automobiles at the rate of one per minute. Time and motion studies have been used by plant management to eliminate jobs, and where three jobs once existed two are all that now remain. As plants see their sales and profits recover to pre-recession levels, workers stand in massive lineups waiting only for an application form. Not only does this reserve army of labour put pressure on those currently working in assembly plants, but as lean programs take hold, fewer factory jobs of any kind will be available for assembly workers.

Kaizening: Stealing Workers' "Tricks":

Taylorism seeks to break a worker's job down into a series of repetitive operations in order to speed up production. The Japanese 'Taylorist' variation Kaizen (which means constant improvement) takes this separation of conception and execution of a worker's job and attempts to gain an 'insight' into the 'tricks of the worker's trade' by rewarding workers for the disclosure of the secrets which workers use in order to gain a necessary 'breather'. For example, before the introduction of Synchronous at the G.M. Oshawa Plant, a worker had an average of 30-50 seconds to perform a given job. With time and experience, assembly workers might find a faster (however unapproved) way of performing a task without affecting the final quality of the finished product in any way. The worker might change the order of an operation, or 'work up the line'-- that is, to speed up temporarily in order to give him/herself a short break. Workers may even 'double up' with one another that is to perform the work of two workers in 10, 15, 30 or even one-hour 'shifts' in order to 'buy' onself a break from the routine of the line for anywhere from ten to sixty minutes.

This last method is admittedly a risk-taking exercise which is generally done in a clandestine manner so as not to raise the ire of management. At one time (before the introduction of Synchronous Manufacturing) management simply turned a blind eye to worker practices of 'doubling up'. Workers would explain that they had good relations with supervisors who didn't mind their methods 'as long as the job got done'. The practice of doubling up thus ended up satisfying both parties. The advantage to line workers was immense: workers freed themselves from the tedium of constant assembly, thereby fragmenting their workday into managable blocks (i.e. rather than looking forward to the end of an eight-hour shift, now even those poorly served by doubling up could look forward to ten minutes of relative freedom every ten minutes). However the practice of doubling up reveals slack within the job and therefore jeporadizes workers' jobs. With the introduction of lean manufacturing and kaizen, workers revealing any slack in their work routine tempt management into eliminating the slack -- and their jobs.

Kaizening lures workers into revealing their 'tricks' thereby allowing management to add extra work to the (now 'idle') worker's job. This gives management the opportunity to eliminate "non value-added work." The result is that a worker with lower seniority (not necessarily the worker who did the kaizening) is laid off or 'bumped' (via seniority) to a less-preferable job. But the outcome is that the worker's once-'free' time has now vanished, and is filled with yet more unending work. This may be a boon to the company, which can now produce the same number of cars with less labour, but is destructive from a lineworker's perspective.

Proponents of lean production methods readily admit that it places pressure on workers. Some researchers claim that the work pace in 'transplanted' (overseas manufacturers using North American labour and manufacturing facilities) plants is much faster than in most U.S.-owned plants. At the transplants workers must constantly be on their toes, alert to defects and they are continually pressured to be continually aware that falling behind will be impossible to hide. Those whose work performance is sub-standard can be singled out and subjected to sanctions by other workers who will be required to make up for the failures. The resulting peer pressure is 'built-in' to the lean manufacturing plant every bit as much as the conveyer line itself.

At the Honda of America Manufacturing (HAM) plant in Marysville Ohio, "Respect for the individual" is the catchphrase which Honda management claims is at the heart of their "human-centred philosophy." While much is made of team efforts, in a bow to `American sensibilities' (in fact a careful use of U.S. ideology with regard to 'individual rights') according to HAM President Takeshi Yamada each HAM associate is

expected to be a full participant in the ongoing effort to improve all aspects of our operations...Associate circles solve problems, reduce costs and increase efficiency... Yamada, Takeshi "Honda in Ohio: Built on Respect," The JAMA Forum, December 1994, 13.2, 16.

HAM even has a "Quality Communication Plaza" in which HAM associates meet in town-hall style where critical production-related decisions are made. According to Yamada the associates:

are presented with the current situation and asked to support a course of action. Comments are solicited from all and responses are prompt. Yamada, 16.

Yamada no doubt invites commentary. Parker and Slaughter suggest that an effective way to fight the invitation to participate is to do as one United Auto Workers local in the U.S. did and 'do nothing'. They advise that any reply, suggestion or even a critique of the participation program itself contributes to management efforts to draw workers into their programs. Any response is a positive contribution to a lean program.

Oshawa Viewpoints: Lean and Mean

The jobs are now pushing inhumane limits as one needs only to look at the number of transfers filed since April 1st, 1994, from the members who formally had preferred sub- assembly jobs. To date approx, 90% of these Brothers have filed transfers to escape this new system G.M. has introduced. Bobas, Steve "Mass Exodus From Sub-Assembly," Zone 7 Committeeperson's Report, The Oshaworker June 1994: 20.

-- Steve Bobas, CAW Zone Committeeperson

In the Oshawa automobile complex, or 'Autoplex', little remains of the original promises of worker empowerment, training for the future and multitasking. Instead, jobs are simply being 'kaizened' out of existence and workers are scattering for the few preferred jobs which still exist. Outside economic pressures -- like a readily available workforce eager to work for a 'Generous Motors' wage of $22 per hour despite the in-plant conditions -- place those working inside the G.M. Autoplex in an even more insecure position.

As was witnessed in the early weeks of January 1995, the devastating pressures of the 1990-1994 recession (which battered Ontario particularly hard), the promise of steady employment, high wages, a union contract, job security and a bountiful benefits package created a powerful synthesis which drew the employed and unemployed alike to a frozen, mammoth lineup for a simple application form. One G.M. job seeker who braved the cold queue said that: "Anyone who really wants a job wouldn't mind this. If you want a job, you have to take what they give."

Theresa Boyle and Paul Irish. "Desperate for a job." The Toronto Star [Toronto] 10 Jan. 1995, Ontario ed.: A1. Therefore "taking what they give" is precisely the situation that those both in and outside General Motors face. Outside, in sub-zero temperatures, even those who currently have jobs are hoping for greater wages and benefits, while workers inside the Autoplex have witnessed huge changes even within the past few months.

They've eliminated manpower, they've tightened the system up to where you have no spare time at all. I don't mean 5 or 10 minutes, but literally 30-40 seconds. Unidentified male General Motors Truck Plant worker.

Subject "A", Personal interview, 6 Jan. 1995.

Among the responses to the survey questions was an illuminating reply to a posting on a computer bulletin board. It refers to the GMT400 program which was the Oshawa truck assembly plant's version of the 1986 team concept program.

Things began to radically change during the GMT400 implementation (in the mid 1980s). An individual prior to GMT400 could give an extra effort and be rewarded with a small period of time to rest your body and use your mind for something other than monotonous, repetitive dementia causing work. Now you give the extra effort plus! and (sic) you lose any replenishing time. Bill Spencer, B.O.R.G. Bulletin Board, Jan. 15, 1995.

Since September 1994 the G.M. Oshawa Truck Assembly Plant, using Synchronous Manufacturing techniques, has 'tightened up' its assembly line production to an even greater degree than in the past.

All the jobs are there are miserable and so if you're going to be staying on the job for any time you've got to find a way to make it as comfortable as possible... But after you do that, they bring in this downsizing kind of thing, that jusifies them moving people from one place to the other. Unidentified male General Motors Truck Plant worker. Subject "C," Personal Interview, 6 Jan. 1995.

Workers' ways of making miserable jobs tolerable are being eliminated by G.M. at an astonishing pace. According to an Oshawa union health and safety official writing in the local newsletter

Did you know that one out of every six employees in the Car Assembly Plant suffered a lost time accident in 1993...Did you know the accident rate in the Car Plant increased 24.7 percent, the Car Plant Hourly Work Force dropped by 1,200 workers. Paul Goggan, "Is Your Job Causing You Pain?" The Oshaworker Health and Safety Report, June 1994, 30.

The unfortunate result of the elimination of 1,200 jobs is that injuries have apparently increased dramatically. The pace of job elimination inside the G.M. Truck Plant has escalated considerably since September 1994 and shows no sign of flagging.

The G.M. assembly line workers interviewed for this study were relatively uniform in their description of the assembly line both before and after the introduction of lean production.

Six G.M. employees (four assemblers, two skilled tradespersons) were asked "Describe your job -- step by step -- before the introduction of Synchronous Manufacturing. Now describe your job -- in detail -- as it is today." Interviewees were deliberately asked an open-ended question -- with prompts when necessary. Their occupation, plant, seniority and gender were noted. All interviewees were asked to describe their understanding of syncronous manufacturing and given a description of holistic manufacturing for their comment. The interviews were conducted in person and (with one exception/ objection) were tape recorded for accuracy. Interviewees were assigned alphabetic designations from "A" to "E" for the purposes of identification.

For example, the following interviewee worked in the Truck Assembly Plant body shop readying quarter panels for eventual installation. She described the changes made to a job where "there was two of us doing the same job, and from two it went down to one." Unidentified female General Motors Truck Plant worker.

Subject "B", Personal interview, 6 Jan. 1995. This occured with the arrival of Synchronous Manufacturing in 1992 when truck plant management

made the line shorter so there was less to hang so you couldn't build up and one person could do it...one person could fill the shorter line of hangers...they made it more compact so I didn't have to walk as far.. Subject "B", ibid.

Shortening the line of hangers on which this worker placed her quarter panels meant that she could no longer "build up" a buffer of parts which would allow a few minutes rest. From the company's standpoint shortening the line of hangers effectively 'tied' the worker to the job and eliminated wandering about the plant. Shortening the line also gave the company a rationale to convince this worker that she could now do this (previously) two-person job.

This interviewee pointed out that although she was unconvinced in the retraining sessions held by the company before the introduction of team concept, the introduction of a robot which applied sealer to the quarter panel was what persuaded her that this time her job would indeed be easier.

they put in that sealer gun to eliminate the sealing and it didn't even work, so they spent all that money putting in this robot puts sealer in and you have to do it all by hand again. Subject "B", ibid.

Rather than an aberration, failure of new technology in its introductory stages seems to be the norm. Here I draw from my own personal experience on the assembly line. Robots, automatic welders and sealers often did not perform as promised -- if it performed at all. Newly-installed machinery repeatedly broke down and the spectacle of several M.R.'s -- machine repairperson -- hurriedly bicycling to a newly-installed machine was relatively commonplace. However, eventually most new technology works out its 'bugs'.

In fact, interviewee "D" is a Machine Repairperson in G.M.'s South Stamping Plant and interviewee "E" a tool-and-die maker. Both are skilled tradespeople who readily acknowledge that their jobs have not been appreciably affected since the introduction of Synchronous Manufacturing. In fact one of the skilled tradesmen saw Synchronous as

another word for common sense. That's the way I see it... A big run around putting up all these signs saying 'stairs to the basement' and all this other stuff was supposed to be Synchrous making things easier..hey, all they were doing was making stuff make common sense. Unidentified male General Motors South Stamping Plant Worker, Subject "D" Personal Interview, Jan 13, 1995.

From a skilled tradesperson's point of view then, without a direct connection or tie to the assembly line or process, Synchronous Manufacturing offered little other than "a few extra signs and some lines painted on the floor." Subject "D", ibid. When asked what differences he had experienced since the introduction of Synchronous, this interviewee simply said

Nothing changed...I maintain the presses..If the press doesn't break down, all I do is make sure the oil levels are topped up and that's it. Nothing changed for me at all. If the press don't (sic) break down I don't do nothing. Subject "D", ibid.

This is quite a contrast from the view of an average lineworker who, although not aware of the name the process was given, was aware of the effect on his workmates

They did this scaled down thing in September which is part of synchronous manufacturing. They call it, er, I think they mentioned 'scale-down' as one thing. They put the people out of work and not (sic) replace them. And so the work that was usually be (sic) done by twenty-five people would be done by maybe eighteen people. Subject "C", ibid.

Characteristically, probing for an alternative way of automobile assembly, or another way of organizing the line only received chuckles or hands waving away the unimaginable. What some workers in Sweden take for granted cannot be imagined in Oshawa.

Lean Manufacturing and Repetitive Injury: A Personal View

Early in 1986, during a retooling layoff, I went through a 'team concept training course'. Twenty workers and our foreman-to-be ended up in a classroom telling stories, working on group games, brainstorming and puzzle solving for forty hours. We were told that we had to keep up with the Japanese who had been doing it this way for years.

A couple of months later on the 'new' assembly line we unlearned it all. Few lineworkers actually did stop the line as we were instructed to do when we spotted quality defects. Our union had no strategy for dealing with the program, so individuals were left on our own. Several of us decided that we didn't believe the company would carry out its promises of empowerment and we took every opportunity to 'test the system'. One day I pulled a line-stop cord for a quality problem. My job was making certain that fenders were properly fitted and then screwing in four screws to lock the fit into place. In this case the fenders were of poor quality and I had yet to find one which fit properly. My foreman came running over and asked me what the problem was. I showed him and explained that this was not a quality fit. He said he would call the stamping plant for an explanation. I never heard back from him. After lunch I pulled the cord again. This time the foreman, the area manager and the plant supervisor came over. I again explained the problem. They told me they were looking into the matter and ordered me to continue fitting fenders no matter what their quality. After enduring several hours of more trouble fitting fenders, I again pulled the stop cord. This time the line stopped only momentarily and restarted again. I looked down the line and saw my foreman standing at the other end -- the cord in his hand -- smiling, waiting and ready to challenge me again.

The quality problem never was fixed. Over the next few years I dealt with fenders that were frankly too long to fit a car properly. A new foreman soon became aware of the problem and ordered me to hit the fender into shape with the palm of my hand. He claimed that a tool would do damage to the metal part and that the problem was close to being resolved. I initially balked, but after four years of battling with this problem I was looking forward to an end to this headache, so I went along with him.

In late 1990, my hands would occasionally go numb. I thought little of it at the time, but I gave up hitting fenders. It took only a few days for my foreman to reprimand me for ending this practice. He threatened me with disciplinary action if I didn't comply. A few days after this run-in, I couldn't feel my hand at all. A doctor told me I had White Finger Disease and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome -- both due to occupational overuse of my hands. I was warned that I could never return to assembly work again. Lean production had taken its toll on my health.


In an attempt to increase their profit-taking, corporations have always attempted to 'cash in' on their employees' sense of loyalty, work ethic, and even nationalist pride by promoting a socially constructed vision of employer-employee unity. This vision of unity 'papers over' class divisions and attempts to hide the inequality which divides production workers from corporate owners.

Workers want desperately to believe that they share the same goals as management. Workers want to believe that their efforts and indeed their productive lives are not being expended in vain. York University professors Harry Glasbeek and Eric Tucker write that issues of national pride and 'false competition' are mere "social constructions" which are conjured up in order to increase manufacturers' profits as well as to promote social stability.

A key question currently asked within the ranks of organized labour is 'with whom do should workers ally themselves?' In the light of the post-1989 world, class warfare has been called outmoded and the phrase 'the end of history' has been applied to both inter and intranational relations. Canadian workers are asking themselves whether they should unite with their employer -- and indeed with their government's social and economic policy goals -- in order to prop up a sagging standard of living, 'beat' other nations in the drive to succeed on a global scale and at the same time avoid what are seemingly inevitable layoffs and plant closures.

Present high levels of unemployment and the pressures of globalization coupled with increasing technological innovation have made it possible for auto manufacturers to further capitalize on a collective sense of worker insecurity. These socioeconomic conditions loom in the background of labour-management relations and translates into a heightened sense of risk for Canadian workers. As researcher Don Wells writes:

A certain level of job insecurity in firms that are introducing lean production practices in Canada and the U.S., combined with high rates of unemployment and bad jobs outside the firm, and a weakening of unemployment insurance, health care and other social programs, have become the main motivation for workers to consent to these innovations... Wells, Don (1993), "Lean Production: The Challenges to Labour," paper presented at The Lean Workplace Conference, Port Elgin, Ontario, September-October 1993, 3.

Wells claims that this atmosphere generally hastens labour's cooperation in the introduction of a lean manufacturing strategy into an existing plant. An additional 'incentive' to workers is one of a threatened plant shutdown, what managers call a "significant emotional event." Wells, 3. The current 'vehicle' driving this corporate message to shop floors across North America is embodied in the concept of lean production.

It appears that lean manufacturing's claims with respect to multitasking, empowerment and the promise of more and better training, is little more than 'window dressing' which hides a sophisticated 'feel-good' approach to managing workers with less animosity while it makes more use of specialized worker knowledge. If workers are to be obedient and not rebel against a work-process which strips them of their 'humanity', they must -- among other things -- be given promises of more and better training, empowerment and identification with their work. Harry Braverman writes that

The necessity for adjusting the worker to work in its capitalist form, for overcoming natural resistance intensified by swiftly changing technology, antagonistic social relations, and the succession of the generations, does not therefore end with the "scientific organization of labour," but becomes a permanent feature of capitalist society. Braverman, 139-140.

Lean manufacturing techniques -- applying Braverman's thesis -- seems to be a method which attempts to overcome workers' resistance to work in its capitalist form. To date this has been a successful manipulative tool in the hands of corporate managers. Workers and unions -- cowed by insecurity, the recession and warnings of global restructuring -- have thus far not been terribly successful at thwarting off the challenges of lean manufacturing.

The Swedish model of Holistic Assembly which involves workers and unions to a high degree in real decision-making and planning allowed what Swedish researcher Christian Berggren calls "a capacity to articulate complex social demands which the Japanese structure of enterprise union cannot match." Berggren, Christian (1993) "Designed for Learning: The Potential of Holistic Assembly as Contrasted to the Lean Line" Paper presented at The Lean Workplace Conference, Port Elgin, Ontario, September-October 1993.

It is on the subject of global competition that this paper began to explore some of the problems with the lean manufacturing model. In order to effectively reject the 'compelling' model of lean production, it bears repeating that workers must not strategize on a plant-by-plant basis. Instead, there must be a united continental--perhaps even global--strategy encompassing the entire auto sector.

This might be a realistic achievement given that the auto unions, who are in a position of almost universal worker representation in this sector, have the auto workers of the continent already united and organized. Therefore the shop floor organization currently exists and is the most obvious agent of workplace change.

The only realistic solution for industrial workers, the only useful approach is one which recognizes that the 'global-corporate village' translates into a 'global-worker' sectoral strategy.