In this month's edition of the Atlantic Monthly, there's a short piece on how Batesville Casket is using lean to remain competitive. It's a well-written article providing a nice snapshot of the challenges the company faces (Chinese imports, increases in cremation) and how lean is helping it compete.
But then there's the obligatory opposing view of why lean is bad for workers:
How such a lean refitting affects workers on the factory floor receives far less attention. Batesville’s management has guaranteed that no employees will lose their jobs because of a “kaizen event,” an activity in which workers are encouraged, through various exercises, to demonstrate how they themselves could be made superfluous. But Mike Parker, a labor writer who has described lean production as “management by stress,” told me the Toyota Way fixates on efficiency and productivity at the expense of workers. “There’s no place to consider whether some very narrowly defined, de-skilled job offers any satisfaction.”
Now, let me say first that I've never worked on an assembly line a day in my life (unless you count doing dishes at home). It can't be a day at the beach — but of course, that's why it's called "work." However, I'm not sure that there are any jobs, anywhere, that are stress-free. Whether you're running your own small-town soda fountain or leading the global marketing team at Boeing, there's going to be stress. Pressure to improve performance is ubiquitous. If you or your company doesn't feel that pressure, you've either got a cushy monopoly or you're going out of business and you just haven't realized it yet.
More importantly, though, Mike Parker's contention that lean leads to a "narrowly defined, de-skilled job" without any satisfaction is wildly off the mark. As near as I can tell — and again, I've not worked in a factory — by providing workers the opportunity to make the work itself better ((even expecting it), employers are also giving people the chance to use all of their experience and their creativity — in short, their minds. That's hardly a "de-skilled" job. Yes, there's repetitive scut work, but there's also a very rich component of intellectual challenge. And most significantly, that intellectual contibution is welcomed and rewarded by management.
I'm not sure what Mike Parker think a better system might be. Hanging around the plant, working at your own pace, not allowing line workers the opportunity to contribute to the design of their own work? That sure turned out well for GM's Fremont plant before NUUMI, right?