The Complexities of the Automotive Industry: Positive and Negative Feedbacks in Production Systems

By Spencer, Dale; Carlan, Niki | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Complexities of the Automotive Industry: Positive and Negative Feedbacks in Production Systems


Spencer, Dale, Carlan, Niki, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract. This paper utilizes complexity theory to analyze the implications of systemic changes that have occurred over the last 30 years in the automotive industry. We argue by dint of complexity analysis that the networked automotive production system characterized by just-in-time and lean production creates states far from equilibrium in individual parts manufacturers and assembly plants. Positive feedback creates system disturbances and adverse health and safety issues in the local plant environments. In addition, we examine four mechanisms that serve as negative feedback loops to absorb stresses in local plant environments and rectify health and safety related issues. This paper draws on thirty interviews with health and safety representatives at automotive manufacturing and assembly plants.

Resume. Ce papier utilise la theorie de complexite pour analyser les implications de changements systemiques qui se sont produits pendant les trente dernieres annees dans l'industrie automotrice. Nous soutenons, au moyen de l'analyse de complexite, que le systeme de production automoteur en reseau, caracterise par la production juste a temps et mince, cree des etats loin de l'equilibre dans les fabricants de parties individuels et les usines d'assembleur. Les retroactions positives creent des derangements dans le systeme qui causent des conditions defavorables de sante et securite dans les environs locaux de l'usine. En plus, nous examinons quatre mecanismes qui servent comme boucles de retroactions negatives pour absorber ces tensions environnementales, et resoudre les problemes de sante et securite. Ce papier est comprit de trente entretiens avec des representants de sante et securite venant des usines fabricants et d'assemblage automotrices.

INTRODUCTION

Over the last 30 years, the global automotive industry has gone through massive restructuring, with the conversion from a hierarchically oriented, vertically integrated bureaucracy to a horizontal network consisting of lead firms (in the North American context, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and General Motors and Japanese transplants) and various levels of part suppliers. Concomitant with this shift is the global emergence of just-in-time and lean production and the diminution of mass production. While this new network arrangement promises greater organizational flexibility and these production programs offer efficiency over their predecessors, the combination brings greater levels of complexity. This paper follows the complexity turn in sociology (see Urry 2003; 2005a) and utilizes complexity theory to analyze the impact of these changes on the automotive industry. Complexity theory examines the physics of populations and their emergent and self-organizing systemic properties (Law and Urry 2004; Cilliers 1998). Using the tools developed in nascent theorizations of complexity, we analyze the emergence of the networked automotive production system and the nonlinear effects of this system on local plant environments and the workers who inhabit them. We argue, using complexity analysis, that the networked automotive production system of just-in-time and lean production creates states far from equilibrium in individual parts manufacturers and assembly plants. Lastly, we consider negative feedback mechanisms that attempt to stabilize the system.

Positive feedback, in the form of deficient preventative maintenance and housekeeping, produces health and safety issues in the local plant environments. Joint health and safety committees, collective bargaining agreements, the governmental system, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) TS16949 and 14000 standards serve as negative feedback mechanisms to absorb stresses to local plant environments and rectify health and safety related issues.

Our complexity analysis of the North American automotive industry, compared to typical Weberian and Marxist approaches to organizations, offers a theoretically nuanced conceptualization of the impact of internal disturbances on organizations and the effect of those internal disturbances on other organizations within a network. …

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