Lean Production Assessed by Karasek’s Job Demand–Job Control Model

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Lean Production Assessed by Karasek’s Job Demand–Job Control Model

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  Lean Production Assessed by Karasek’s JobDemand–Job Control Model Roel Schouteten and Jos Benders Radboud University Nijmegen Comments on the quality of working life (QWL) under leanproduction have varied from devastating criticism on the one hand,to eulogistic praise on the other. These contrasting positions can berelated to researchers’ opposing societal stances and resultinginterpretations, which are reinforced by the methodologies used andthe absence of an external framework to judge QWL. UsingKarasek’s job demand–job control model, the authors investigate aDutch plant operating under a lean production (LP) regime in anattempt to resolve the controversy. The jobs in this plant can beplaced in Karasek’s quadrant of low job demands and low jobcontrol, which means that antagonists of LP are right in claimingthat the work is monotonous and repetitive, while the advocates’claim that workers have sufficient job decision latitude also holds. Keywords:  job control, job demands, lean production, quality of working life Introduction In the late 1970s, the competitive strength of some Japanese com-panies fuelled a large number of studies into their success. Thefocus was on the closely related topics ‘quality circles’, ‘total qualitymanagement’, ‘just-in-time’ and the ‘Toyota Production System’.A second wave of publications was initiated by the book  TheMachine that Changed the World   (Womack et al., 1990). The authorsadvocated ‘lean production’, a term coined by Krafcik (1988). Thisresearcher was affiliated to a research project designed to comparethe performance and organization of car manufacturers aroundthe world. The main findings were that Japanese manufacturersperformed better than their ‘western’ competitors, and that the basis Economic and Industrial Democracy  &  2004 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks andNew Delhi), Vol. 25(3): 347–373.DOI: 10.1177/0143831X04044831  for this superior performance could be copied. This message wasprimarily meant for American and European managers. Theyresponded enthusiastically to the calls for adopting Japanese-stylemanufacturing, and at the same time the number of Japanese trans-plants in the USA and many European countries increased con-siderably during the 1980s. Thus, in the direct way of Japaneseinvestment and the indirect form of emulating Japanese-style work-ing, employees in many countries were confronted with novel con-ditions. The ample availability of research sites close to home ledto an abundance of empirical work on ‘working under lean produc-tion’ by American and European researchers.Unsurprisingly, Japanese authors were their predecessors. In afirst wave of attention to what was to become known as ‘lean pro-duction’, the Japanese journalist Satoshi Kamata worked undercover in Toyota factories in Japan (see Kamata, 1986). He criticizedToyota harshly for long working hours, constant pressure toimprove, hard physical working conditions combined with a lackof ergonomic measures, unsure employment for the extensive tem-porary staff and the tight company control of worker dormitories,to name but some aspects. In another early publication on theToyota Production System, four Toyota engineers took the oppositeview. Not surprisingly, they praised their company’s productionsystem for its ‘humanization’. They defended the view that avoidingwaste means that essentially superfluous and thus meaningless workis eliminated so that employees may only perform useful work.In addition, they stressed various ergonomic measures (Sugimoriet al., 1977).Throughout the last three decades, scholars and unionists haveintensively discussed the pros and cons of working underJapanese-style conditions. The polarization in the debate, as alreadypresent in the opposing stances of Kamata vs Sugimori et al., hasnever been overcome, and has perhaps even been reinforced. In thiscontribution, we aim to contribute to resolving (at least part of)the controversy by using an external framework, namely Karasek’s job demand–job control model.In the next section the two key notions of this article, quality of working life and lean production, are discussed and related to eachother. We then identify three key issues in the debates on qualityof working life under lean production. To further the debate, wethen discuss an external framework and position the arguments of LP proponents and opponents therein. Subsequently, the method- 348  Economic and Industrial Democracy 25(3)  ology and empirical results are presented, respectively. We summar-ize and discuss our findings in the concluding section. Lean Production Following the publication of the book  The Machine that Changed the World   (Womack et al., 1990), lean production (LP) became amanagement fashion (Kieser, 1997; Hamde, 2002). As a typicalfashion, LP, as introduced in  The Machine that Changed the World  ,was kept relatively ambiguous (Kieser, 1997) and thus lends itself to many interpretations (Ortmann, 1995). As Benders and vanBijsterveld (2000) showed empirically, LP became fashionable inGermany especially and a considerable variety of organizationalchanges were advocated under this popular banner. This furtherinflated the already ambiguous term ‘lean production’, as had hap-pened to other management fashions such as total quality manage-ment (Easton and Jarrell, 2000) and empowerment (Wilkinson,2002; Psoinos and Smithson, 2002). A broad understanding of LPis meaningless for our purpose, as it includes a wide variety of work-ing situations and a host of measures with potentially contrastingeffects on jobs. To be meaningful, this needs to be narroweddown. Thus, instead of the generic everyday use of ‘lean production’,we use the term LP in a more restrained and clearly demarcatedsense: just-in-time manufacturing as pioneered by Toyota Motors.For specialists on car manufacturing,  The Machine that Changed the World   contained little news: as the authors themselves point outelaborately, LP was pioneered within the Japanese car manufacturerToyota Motors (Womack et al., 1990: Ch. 3), and this firm’s ToyotaProduction System had already been the topic of a considerablenumber of publications (e.g. Sugimori et al., 1977; Schonberger,1982; Monden, 1983; Shingo, 1983; Ohno, 1988; Toyota, 1992).The Toyota Production System has been largely or selectivelyadopted by mass producers of passenger cars. For the sake of sim-plicity, one can say that Toyota’s Japanese competitors startedadopting the system after the oil crises of the 1970s; American manu-facturers felt forced to follow suit in the 1980s, and the publicityaround  The Machine that Changed the World   induced the majorityof manufacturers in European countries to catch up.As all other firms, Toyota has many different functional areas,including product development, supply chain management and Schouteten and Benders:  Lean Production Assessed   349  manufacturing. As far as the core of this article’s interest, the finalassembly area, isconcerned theToyotaProduction System ischarac-terized by so-called ‘line production’: car bodies along work stationswhich are placed in the sequence that operations have to be carriedout. The ideal is that the products move without interruption alongthe line. The operation cycle per work station, or ‘takt time’, tends tobe short, typically between one and two minutes at Toyota, yetvaries with the requested output levels. Intra-line buffers were tradi-tionally seen to hide quality problems and therefore were relentlesslyreduced or preferably eliminated. For this to operate, all manifestedand potential disturbances must be weeded out. To ensure that,all operations are standardized and a continuous improvementsystem is in place to persistently enhance quality and efficiencylevels. Just-in-time delivery of parts and finished products is strivenfor to avoid producing unsaleable items and incurring unnecessaryinventory carrying costs. Quality of Working Life under LP The sharp contrast between the critical account of Kamata on theone hand and the eulogy by Sugimori et al. on the other, as relatedin our introduction, has been frequently reiterated in the literatureon the Toyota Production System and Japanese management tech-niques in general. Around 1980, Japanese management practicesgained considerable attention in the US (Vogel, 1979; Schonberger,1982) and the UK. Japanese-style management became a focal pointof attention in these two countries, where the substantial increase inJapanese transplants created possibilities to study the system close tohome for American (Kenney and Florida, 1993; Fairris andTohyama, 2002) and British (Oliver and Wilkinson, 1992; Morriset al., 2000) researchers. LP advocates Womack et al. wrote thatthe system: . . . transfers the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to those work-ers actually adding value to the car on the line, and it has in place a system fordetecting defects that quickly traces every problem, once discovered, to its ulti-mate cause. (Womack et al., 1990: 99) This suggests complete jobs with tasks of varying natures and dif-ficulties, considerable workplace autonomy, interaction potentialand considerable information provision. The critical tone set by 350  Economic and Industrial Democracy 25(3)  Kamata was influential and his work was used by, among others,the German authors Dohse et al. (1985) and by Delbridge et al.(1992). In the UK in particular, where the Marxist-oriented labourprocess approach flourished (Elger and Smith, 1994), critics pointedto intensive worker surveillance, heightened responsibility andaccountability, the harnessing of peer pressure (Sewell and Wilkin-son, 1992), and never-ending work intensification through  kaizen or continuous improvement (Conti and Warner, 1993; Malloch,1997). Although certainly not absent (Parker and Slaughter, 1988;Fucini and Fucini, 1990; Graham, 1995), the critical tone was lessdominant in the US, which was the source of many managementbooks which applauded the economic benefits of Japanese manage-ment techniques and pointed to positive effects on QWL. Abalanced account was given by Klein (1991). On the basis of threecase studies, she concluded that the just-in-time regime which ledto the elimination of intra-line buffers reduced worker autonomywith respect to work pace, and to more monotonous jobs. Workerautonomy was also affected by the extensive use of standard operat-ing procedures (SOPs). In contrast, Klein saw autonomy enhance-ment in the possibility to come up with improvement suggestionswhich often result in changed SOPs. Adler and Cole (1993) alsostressed enhanced autonomy in the form of worker involvement inimproving working conditions, an aspect which was absent in thehitherto prevailing ‘Tayloristic’ production systems. Yet as Contiand Warner expressed it on the basis of UK cases, the ‘labour pro-cess in the visited sites is contradictory, with employees working fourhours a month in a very non-Taylorist manner to make their workfor the rest of the month even more Taylor-like’ (Conti andWarner, 1993: 39). In other words, non-routine tasks only makeup a small percentage of total working time, with the effect thatthe remainder of this working time becomes even more routine. Interms of the difficulty of work, jobs consist of easier and moredifficult tasks, yet the proportion of both appears unbalanced.This proportion of non-routine vs routine tasks is related to theclassical contingency factor (Sorge, 1991: 165) of ‘output character-istics’ such as batch sizes and product variety (Benders, 1995). Themonotony signalled by Klein (1991) and Conti and Warner (1993)will be more prevalent the smaller the product variety is and thelarger batch sizes are. Thus, monotony is not just a function of theway of organizing but also of the prevailing output characteristics(Sorge, 1991: 165; Benders, 1995). These two factors are closely Schouteten and Benders:  Lean Production Assessed   351
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