One Best Way? Trajectories and Industrial Models of the World's Automobile Producers

One Best Way? Trajectories and Industrial Models of the World's Automobile Producers

One Best Way? Trajectories and Industrial Models of the World's Automobile Producers

One Best Way? Trajectories and Industrial Models of the World's Automobile Producers


Many argue that the sole viable future for the automobile industry - indeed for all industry - is the adoption of `lean production' as an organizational model. One Best Way? brings together the research of academic specialists in the automobile industry who have analysed the evolution of 15 major Asian, North American, and European companies in terms of their technological, organizational, commercial and social `trajectories'. They look closely at the evidence for `one best way' and argue that it is more useful to assess the distinctive challenges and `trajectories' that companies have pursued as they try to optimize their profit-making capacities. The book present detailed descriptions of the major producers around the world in three sections: Asia: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai North America: General Motors, Ford, Chrysler Europe: Peugeot, Renault, Rover, Mercedes, Volvo, Lada The book will be essential reading and reference for academics, researchers, and analysts worldwide wanting to track the course of the automobile industry and assess the merits of `lean production'.


Michel Freyssenet

The 'received wisdom' about the history of the automobile industry is common to those who study it and those who work in it. Between 1920 and 1950, following a primarily 'craft' -based phase, both American and European automobile companies are said to have adopted the mass production system, characterized by a search for economies of scale, a sequential and segmented organization of design and production, and the utilization of an unskilled workforce. Because of this system's inherent rigidity, it is said to have been thrown into crisis by the transition to a diversified and unstable replacement market increasingly open to international competition. Conversely, Japanese companies are deemed to have learned early how to rapidly adapt design and production to market changes and make profits in any conditions, thanks to a trained workforce who participate in cost reduction and quality improvement. Accordingly, the Japanese are purported to have invented an industrial model that can succeed in the market conditions which all automobile companies now share. Systematized under the name 'lean production' by the authors of The Machine that Changed the World, (Womack et al. 1990), this system-said to have proved its universality with the success of Japanese transplants in the usa and United Kingdom--is now supposedly obligatory for all American and European companies if they wish to survive into the twenty-first century. They are all said to be trying to adopt it, as revealed by the borrowing of 'Japanese methods': notwithstanding delays, resistance, and mistakes, the production systems of these companies will therefore converge towards 'lean production', just as they converged on mass production during the first half of the twentieth century.

Historical simplifications are useful and legitimate when they reveal the underlying essentials. They are dangerous in theory as in practice when they support widespread prejudices. the claim summarized above is problematic precisely because of the presuppositions upon which it is based, the conceptual ambiguities it supports, the facts it overlooks, the observational and analytical methods it encourages, and lastly the errors it can lead to on the part of company managers and union leaders alike.

In the first place, it presupposes that the market has evolved, and has, in the main, evolved along similar lines throughout the world: that is to say, from an elite market into a replacement market by way of a mass market. It overlooks the fact that the volume and structure of the automobile market depends upon the forms of mobility characteristic of each country, and the way national income is redistributed among social groups, which in turn is influenced by incomes policies and by the economic significance of the automobile industry in the countries in . . .

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