First in, First Out: A Case Study of Lean Manufacturing's "Success" in North America's Automobile Industry

By Brondo, Keri Vacanti; Baba, Marietta L. | Human Organization, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

First in, First Out: A Case Study of Lean Manufacturing's "Success" in North America's Automobile Industry


Brondo, Keri Vacanti, Baba, Marietta L., Human Organization


This paper describes a three-year case study (2003-2005) of General Motors' (GM) Lansing Grand River Assembly (LGRA) plant, the first new vehicle assembly plant in North America to be built on GM's Global Manufacturing System (GMS), a globally integrated lean manufacturing model. The paper is an ethnographic journey to understand the LGRA's perceived initial "success" with lean manufacturing. In the study, LGRA's economic performance is related to two Participant Propositions, one connecting performance to the plant's rural workforce and the second predicting performance declines based on the transfer of "other" workers to the plant. Findings from the case, overall, contribute to the literature on lean manufacturing and participatory work processes, describing how organizational and institutional processes beyond the control of a single plant can possibly lead to a breakdown in participatory structures, creating risks for the long-term sustainability of lean manufacturing approaches.

Key words: work, lean manufacturing, organizations, institutions, General Motors

Introduction

This paper explores the prospects for lean manufacturing in the North American automobile industry. Lean manufacturing has been defined as a complex. multidimensional approach to making goods that includes specific shop floor practices aimed at reducing waste, designs that enhance manufacturability, timely coordination of the supply chain, close collaboration with customers, and highly disciplined management (Womack, Roos, and Jones 1990; Liker 2004). According to Womack, Roos, and Jones (1990:99), the original concept of a "lean" plant, developed by Toyota, was distinguished by two key elements:

It transfers the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to those workers actually adding value to the car on the line, and it has in place a system for detecting defects that quickly traces every problem, once discovered to its ultimate cause.

This definition points to the crucial role of production workers, a feature that has become a focus of controversy as the lean manufacturing system diffused from Toyota to Western corporations (Baba 2008; Babson 1995; Vallas 2006a, 2006b).

Controversy derives from relationships among production workers, unions, and management (Vallas 2006b). In the Toyota Production System (TPS), emphasis is placed on reducing cost by eliminating waste and making full use of human capabilities (Sugimori et al. 1977). Yet the diffusion of lean methods often has implied balancing intensified work effort and reduced worker protections with an enhanced role in worker decision making, workplace authority, and increased skills (e.g. self-directed teams). An intense debate has emerged regarding the consequences of lean manufacturing and whether or not the trade-off actually takes place, or whether workers only experience the downside (Babson 1995; Liker, Fruin, and Adler 1999; Vallas 2006a, 2006b). Less contested is that manufacturing firms face continuing pressure from global competitors to enhance productivity and quality through lean manufacturing methods (Swank 2003).

We describe a three-year case study (2003-2005) of General Motors' (GM) Lansing Grand River Assembly plant (LGRA), the first new vehicle assembly plant in North America to be built on GM's Global Manufacturing System (GMS), a globally integrated lean manufacturing model. GMS resembles TPS in its focus on the standardization of work practices and technology and the elimination of waste in all of its forms (Womack et al. 1990). LGRA began production in 2002 and manufactures four Cadillac models.

LGRA became a leader in luxury nameplate quality production in its first three years, receiving the 2003 silver quality award (#2 plant) and 2004 gold award (#1 plant) in the J. D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study (IQS), and was named the benchmark (best in class) plant for luxury vehicle production efficiency (or productivity) in North America in the 2005 Harbour Report. …

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