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?
Chet Frame says
I started out as a line worker in a rubber molding factory. Each step of the process was done in a department and material moved from department to department and no one had responsibility for quality. The company invested in training the work force and some evolving technology that allowed the molders to finish the pieces, inspect them, and pack them in boxes. Each molder was responsible for his/her quality. The quality of the product improved and turnover was reduced. Additional facilities were added over time and the business continues to flourish. The change started in 1978 and they are still working to get lean and the work is less mindless than when I started molding parts in 1973.
There’s also the point that most lean manufacturers cross train far more, and empower the workforce significantly more than non-lean manufacturers. Employee empowerment is very closely related to job satisfaction. If you go into work every day knowing that you have the power and the skills to make your situation better, it makes you work harder to make it so (you also have no one to blame but yourself). I’ve seen the differences, and those companies that have implemented lean and empowered their employees have far more devoted and satisfied employees than non-lean companies.
I just wish that reporter would ask someone about lean who actually knows what they’re talking about as opposed to someone who talks out of their a$$.
Robert Edward Cenek says
Mike Parker first heaved this claim back in 1995 (I believe). It’s about as passe as talking about camelot.
I have no doubt that a few firms have used (and will continue to use) lean exclusively for quick fix, cost reduction purposes – and as a result, have created work settings that are two ticks north of a Roman galley.
Many however are attempting to fuse lean and high involvement. Most understand that the power of lean lies in tapping into the expertise of those who are “closest to the work.”
Mike Wroblewski says
As past Lean Sensei at Batesville Casket, I have first hand knowledge of their lean system. Batesville is a strong lean company and has been very successful for many years adopting a lean strategy for improvement however they are not perfect in many ways. I disagree with the notion that lean is harmful to assembly workers and wonder why it was included in this report. I have worked on assembly lines (as a replacement and for training experience only, not full time) and it is a demanding job. It can be frustrating and mind-numbing at times. The big difference with lean is it helps remove the frustration and makes the jobs easier and better but it still is work! At Batesville, we strived very hard to include shop floor associates in all kaizen activities (ie our goal was 50% of our kaizen team would be hourly representation). The team made the improvements and all decisions as long as it followed the lean principles. One negative was the pressure by management to reduce headcount as quick as possible, any way possible even though they profess a policy not to layoff anyone due to kaizen. The temptation is too great to make the numbers since Batesville management is extremely results orientated.
By the way, they only sell caskets not coffins. There is a difference.
Doesn’t it make you wonder, Dan, if Mr. Parker has ever worked a line job himself? or more importantly, if he has ever participated in a PROPER lean transformation?
Dan Markovitz says
Mike — I was hoping you’d weigh in on this post, since I knew you worked at Batesville. Your insight is valuable — glad to know that I’m not totally off-base (except about that casket/coffin business).
Management is always rightly going to be results focused.
I think that the pressure to reduce head count is strong in most companies implementing lean. It’s an immediate improvement to the bottom line.
The answer is to leverage that extra labour to be more productive, but this isn’t always easy without new business.
As for making the job more “narrowly-defined and de-skilled”, I agree with Mike W that reducing frustrations makes the work more worthwhile for employees. During kaizen events, improvement ideas from hourly employees almost always stem from frustrations with the current process.