Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Implementing Different Concepts of Lean Production: Workers' Experience of Lean Production in North American Transplants

Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

Implementing Different Concepts of Lean Production: Workers' Experience of Lean Production in North American Transplants

Article excerpt

Is there a 'logic' to industrial capitalism and the market forces of an increasingly global economy which encourages work practices and employee management strategies of individual organisations and across national borders to become more similar? This article responds to this question by considering the experience of workers in Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American joint ventures and Japanese transplants in the North American automobile industry. The dissimilarities of the parent Japanese companies' lean production systems are highlighted before consideration is given to the factors which initially encourage adoption by North American subsidiaries of Japanese automobile companies of Japanese employee management techniques and the experiences of workers in these transplants which result in North American workers seeking to reassert more pluralist concepts and approaches to the employee-management relationship. By placing the development and implementation of the various Japanese versions of lean production into their cultural, technological, geographic, historical, and organisational contexts, this article suggests the variety which flourishes even when conformity is seemingly evident. Consideration of Japanese efforts to import their management techniques into North America suggests both the contexts in which organisations, workforces, labor markets, and political structures are receptive to new management techniques and the strength of cultural, political, and labour relations institutions and practices to modify and recreate. The convergence-divergence debate, as with most dichotomies, demands one winner; reality is, however, more complex and forces not one choice, but rather fosters the creation of more options.

INTRODUCTION

Is there a 'logic' to industrial capitalism and the market forces of an increasingly global economy which encourages work practices and employee management strategies of individual organisations and across national borders to become more similar? Or, do organisational factors and the political, social, cultural and historical experiences at the macro-societal level perpetuate significant differences in what and how work practices and employee management strategies are adopted and accepted at firm and societal levels?

Consideration of the efforts of Japanese automobile manufacturers to transplant lean production systems into their operations in the United States and Canada suggest the limits of industrial capitalism's ability to establish a hegemony of specific labour and production systems. As with most debates which begin with polar opposites, the reality is somewhere in the middle, and this is true as well for the debate about whether industrial capitalism results in a convergence of employment and work practices.

Neither Fordism nor the post-Fordist methods of lean production have established, or can establish, a universal approach to work organisation and labour processes. Consideration of the efforts to establish lean production systems in the North American automobile manufacturing industry reveal both the pressures to adopt particular management techniques and the contextual limitations to such adoption. Here, the focus is on the human side of lean production (teams, kaizen, etc.) and on the commitment of particular Japanese automobile manufacturing companies to these practices and the response of employees to management's efforts to implement these practices.

Lean Production

Lean production systems are characterised by just-in-time production, continuous improvement, team-based work arrangements and total quality management. Such systems purportedly offer employees opportunities for meaningful work and psycho-social benefits absent in mass productions (i.e. Fordism), including multi-skilling, increased consultation and communication, team-based work and participation in and rewards for identifying and implementing quality improvements. …

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