Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Experiences from Implementation of Lean Production: Standardization versus Self-Management: A Swedish Case Study

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Experiences from Implementation of Lean Production: Standardization versus Self-Management: A Swedish Case Study

Article excerpt


Lean production is one of the most influential management and organizational trends globally in the last decade. Even though it is a concept not possible to define exactly (Seppälä and Klemola, 2004), lean production can be perceived as a way of thinking toward which organizations strive through acquiring certain principles and by implementing various tools and technologies (Womack et al., 1990). These tools and technologies are commonly seen as originating from a Japanese production context and were popularized throughout the world from the 1990s. One important and necessary constituent of the lean concept is the use of standards, which is of particular interest in this article, dealing with the relationship between standardization and self-management in a Swedish context. Being part of a globalized world, the Swedish working life is heavily affected by these lean models. The more popular they have become, the more obvious is the problematic relationship between self-management and standardization, based on our definition of self-management as autonomy at work and self-regulation (Niepce and Molleman, 1998; see further below) and standardization as narrow short-cycle work, a common lean trait in the manufacturing industry. The reason why this problem is more accentuated in the Scandinavian countries in general and in Sweden in particular is the impact sociotechnical production models have had since the end of the 1970s.

Research shows that even though there has been a general development toward a higher degree of self-management in many European countries (Totterdill et al., 2002), it has not been followed by a significant higher degree of influence at work (European Foundation, 2007). Two possible explanations are given, one of them pointing to the fact that autonomy linked to self-management is counteracted by an increase in standardization (Thompson, 2003), leading to psychosocial strain at work (Docherty et al., 2002). Secondly, that organizations characterized by self-management often lack routines and standards which in turn could lead to a boundless work situation with different kinds of negative work environment consequences (Allvin et al., 2006; Visholm, 2005).

In the article, we argue that it is not inevitable that implementation of lean processes will have detrimental effects on work satisfaction and other values associated with sociotechnical production models. Studies have shown that the implementation of lean can be performed quite differently with very different outcomes. It might be the case that lean production is implemented with a contextual sensitivity, that is, with the ability to consider the context in which the lean model will be set up, and do it in ways that will prove effective in that specific context (Börnfelt, 2006; Hailey and logun, Hasle et al., 2012; Pettigrew and Whipp, 1991). Successful change, in the Swedish case, thus would require a context-sensitive approach in which lean practices are combined with established models for job enrichment, involvement, and delegated responsibilities.

By focusing on the implementation of lean, the aim of the study is to explore if lean and self-management principles can be combined or if the differences between the principles are too wide. We will address this overall research aim with the help of the following research questions:

- What are the experiences in three different manufacturing units, where there has been a tradition of sociotechnical work design, when implementing and practicing lean?

- To what extent is lean implementation (with standardization as a strong characteristic) affecting the possibility of practicing self-management and upholding work richness and other sociotechnical aspects?

The empirical material consists of three Swedish case studies from companies in the mechanical engineering industry, all of them with a tradition of sociotechnical practices. In recent years, however, the companies have launched substantial efforts for implementing lean practices. …

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