The International Motor Vehicle Program's Lean Production Benchmark: A Critique

By Rinehart, James | Monthly Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The International Motor Vehicle Program's Lean Production Benchmark: A Critique


Rinehart, James, Monthly Review


The Lean Production Benchmark

At the time of the first Binghamton conference in 1978 the Big Three automakers were operating with master agreements and pattern bargaining, and there were no Asian auto assembly transplants in North America. Shortly thereafter, increased imports, plant overcapacity, and recession set the stage for a major overhaul of labor-management relations, production processes, and work practices.

The 1979 Chrysler bailout marked the breakdown of pattern bargaining and the beginning of an era of concessions in the industry. Between 1982 and 1990 seven transplants or joint ventures opened in the United States and four in Canada. (One, Hyundai, is now closed.) While concession bargaining emerged in a period of economic crisis, the return of profitability did not deter the automakers' pursuit of concessions. With the arrival of the transplants, concessionary agreements, once restricted to wages, increasingly incorporated human resource policies and work practices modeled after Japanese automakers, especially Toyota. These included team concept; contingent compensation; outsourcing; collapsed job categories and increased flexibility of worker deployment; decentralization of quality responsibilities; participatory mechanisms; labor-management cooperation; and the elimination of work rules won in more prosperous years. While there are wide operational and management differences across companies and across plants owned by the same company, most Big Three auto plants in North America now can be characterized as lean production-mass production hybrids.

Academics associated with the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP), which is funded by every auto company in the world, are on a mission: to convince manufacturers to shift from mass to lean production and to convince everyone else that this is a good idea. In their influential book The Machine that Changed the World (1991), the IMVP trio of Womack, Jones, and Roos compared the operational efficiency of over ninety auto assembly plants in seventeen countries. They concluded that Japanese automakers in Japan, especially Toyota, followed by Japanese transplants, were the leanest, most efficient in the world. This research strategy exemplified what recently has become a lucrative business, viz., benchmarking studies. According to the largest management consulting firm in the world, Andersen Consulting, Inc., "benchmarking is the most powerful tool for assessing industrial competitiveness and for triggering the change process in companies by measuring such factors as productivity, work-in-process, defects, space utilization, amount of inventory, set-up times, and so on."

Womack and his MIT colleagues evangelically promoted lean production as not only the one best way to produce vehicles but also as a worker-friendly system. They stressed the system's precision and flexibility, tight inventories, quick die changes, and low per-unit assembly hours. They also made exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims about its benefits for workers: extensive training, multiskilling, challenging work, empowerment, and harmonious labor-management relations. These humane arrangements arise not just from management's employment of sound human resource policies. The fragility of a lean system, especially its just-in-time (JIT) deliveries and production processes and workers' quality responsibilities, allegedly obligates management to use practices that commit workers to the company and its objectives. Like it or not, lean companies have got to be nice to their workers.

IMVP'S "Retreat"

In their recent book After Lean Production (1997), Kochan, Lansbury, and MacDuffie retreated from the unsubstantiated argument advanced by their IMVP colleagues, viz., that lean production provides challenging jobs performed by multiskilled workers in a high-trust, participatory environment. Now the IMVP group simply maintains that the optimal efficiency of lean manufacturing techniques requires "high involvement" work practices and human resource policies. …

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