Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing: The Workplace Experience of Lean Production and the "Japanese" Model

Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing: The Workplace Experience of Lean Production and the "Japanese" Model

Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing: The Workplace Experience of Lean Production and the "Japanese" Model

Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing: The Workplace Experience of Lean Production and the "Japanese" Model


Much is stated and written about the new world of work but how much do we know about the contemporary workplace? What influence have Japanese management techniques (Just-in-Time Production and Total Quality Management, for example) had on the way work is organized in `transplants', and more broadly in other firms and sectors? Have the systems and mechanisms of control changed radically in recent years, or are they much the same as they have always been? Rick Delbridge sought an answer to these questions at first hand by working on the shopfloor in a Japanese consumer electronics transplant and a European automotive components supplier in order to witness and experience life on the line in contemporary manufacturing. His book is in a long tradition of ethnographic research in industrial sociology and management/labour studies. Not only does he offer rich empirical data on the lived reality of work and a management practice that may share little in common with that found in the textbooks; he also raises a number of important issues about the best ways to understand the complex and changing nature of work. The book will be essential reading for those wishing to understand the reality of the contemporary workplace, the diffusion of Japanese management practices, and the various influences brought to bear on the organization of work.


Before I started this project I had never worked in a factory. Like most people, I suppose, I understood that factory work was mundane, repetitive, hard work. I thought I knew what to expect when I entered the plant and in a way I did. But it was more mundane, more repetitive, and harder than I had expected, more soul-destroying to work on a line in a dreary factory for hour after hour, day after day, than I can really articulate. You have to be there. And that is the experience of millions of people, year after year. My time with the workers of Valleyco and Nippon CTV was an education in the true sense and when I left them my admiration and respect for those people and my despair at the systematic wasting of their talents was complete.

This book is about the working lives and experiences of those people and their social relations on the shop-floor in the changing world of manufacturing. The data that are presented here were gathered during two periods of participant observation working on the shop-floor at the plants. This research approach allows an 'up close and personal' account of these workplace relations. The objective at the start of this project was to understand more about the complexities and dynamics of a particular social situation, namely the shop-floor experience under 'new manufacturing techniques'. It is my intention that in writing this book the true nature of this shop-floor situation will be understood more widely. In particular, this book addresses debates over the role of workers in modern manufacturing, the nature of new management techniques, and the influence of Japanese management on the 'new' workplace.

In writing this book I have been fortunate to have the support of many people. I would like to thank my past and present colleagues at Cardiff Business School. In particular, I am grateful to Barry Wilkinson who was the inspiration and guiding light for the project, and to Mike Bresnen, Jim Lowe, Nick Oliver, Peter Turnbull, and Syd Weston for their friendship, support, and guidance. I am grateful to Ed Heery and Professor Paul Edwards of Warwick Business School for their comments on drafts of the manuscript and to David Musson of Oxford University Press for his faith and patience. Thanks also to Wendy Brown for her help in preparing the book for publication.

Closer to home, my thanks and love to my parents and sister Rachel. And most importantly, of all the people to whom I am indebted, the biggest 'thank you' is to Susan and Steffan for their love, support, and understanding during the long time that this book has been in the writing.

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