Sparks Fly On The Factory Floor
issue 195 - May 1989
Sparks fly on the factory floor
A radical new production system - the 'team concept' - is replacing the monotonous
old assembly lines. And the car industry leads the way. Jane Slaughter and
Mike Parker explain the threat to workers all over the world.
General Motors took out a series of ads in Business Week in 1987 extolling the company's new, co-operative relationship with its workforce - what the company called the 'team concept'.
'American industry was in decline,' said General Motors (GM), and the main problem was the assembly line itself - the very system that first catapulted the US car industry into the lead nearly 80 years ago. But now, said GM, the assembly line had a 'dampening effect on the creativity and managerial skills of the workers'. However their solution was not to get rid of the assembly line but to replace 'the symbols of confrontation' with 'symbols of co-operation' where 'everyone eats together, parks together, and works together'.
GM claims the 'team concept' gives workers a major say in what goes on in the plant. But what is this team concept? And how does it alter the relationship between management and labor that's existed since Henry Ford first revolutionized industrial production? Ford attracted droves of workers to his Model T assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan, back in 1914, by paying them the then-unheard of sum of five dollars a day. This was the only way he could keep workers on the job. For men unaccustomed to the mind-numbing and body-punishing effects of the assembly line, Henry Ford's factory was a hellish place. 1
Frederick W Taylor, the father of time-and-motion study, helped Ford shape his revolutionary assembly line. Taylor's industrial engineers studied workers and analyzed their actions. Then they informed the foremen of just how fast the jobs could - and therefore should - be done. Through most of the twentieth century, the time study man' standing over the worker with a stopwatch was a symbol of authoritarian management and worker alienation.
Today, the 'team concept' asks workers to do the time-study themselves. And all indications are that Taylorism not been abolished; it has been intensified.
The main test lab for the team concept in North America is the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc plant (NUMMI) in Fremont, California - a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. The Toyota-managed factory has received more pilgrimages by eager managers than any other plant in the US. The company did what many employers thought was impossible. They took an old factory with a unionized workforce and a minimum of new technology. They changed both management and labor relations methods, and they finished up with a car that could compete with the Japanese.
NUMMI is the prototype for how work in many industries will be performed in the next decade. The auto industry is furthest along that road; but many others, including the electrical, telephone, steel and paper industries are also flirting with the team concept. Management journals call the system 'synchronous manufacturing'. A more appropriate name would be 'management-by-stress' (MBS).
The andon board (a Japanese term) illustrates how management-by-stress works. A lighted board above the assembly line shows the status of each work-station. When a worker falls behind or needs help, they pull a cord. Bells chime and the board lights up. If the cord is not pulled again within a minute, say, the line stops.
Under the old system, the manager would want to see no lights flashing. Not so under MBS. Such disruptions are welcome because they identify the system's weak points. Breakdowns indicate where a method must be changed. Pressure is applied until the work-station can barely keep up. The ideal is for all stations to oscillate between lights on and lights off.
A system that constantly rebalances itself, becoming ever more productive, is certainly an elegant idea. The only problem is that its components are not just transistors, motors and computers. They also include human beings. Some NUMMI workers refer to their jobs as 'eight hours of aerobics'.
Management-by-stress wrings the greatest possible use out of Taylor's principles and methods. Engineers and team leaders write a chart of how to do each job. The method must not vary. Workers are not allowed to put on a burst of speed to create some breathing space. If they discover how to make the job easier, they must ask the group leader's permission to use it. The catch, of course, is that another task will be found to fill up the breathing space.
No matter how well the workers perform, there is always room for kaizen, the Japanese term for continuous improvement. Slow car sales at one point caused the company to cut the line speed from 910 cars a day to 650, in order to reduce inventories. And management did honor its agreement to try to avoid layoffs. But because running at anything less than maximum efficiency is anathema under MBS, management could not permit a temporarily more relaxed pace. Instead the surplus workers were put into kaizen groups to observe their colleagues and suggest how they could work more efficiently. This was not a recipe for harmony in the workforce.
One of the biggest differences between MBS plants and traditional auto plants is that workers are encouraged to pull the cord to stop the line if they spot a problem. The companies see this as an indication of their respect for workers. Yasuhiro Monden, author of a manual used at NUMMI, writes, 'It is not a conveyor that operates men, it is men that operate a conveyor.2
But pulling the cord offers only temporary help. It just means that the worker will get the immediate attention of group leaders. A Mazda worker in an MBS plant in Flat Rock, Michigan describes the Catch 22 in which a friend found herself.
'She had a hard time one day and pulled the stop cord several times. The next day several management officials observed her and set up a video camera to record her work. She found herself working further into the 'hole' (past her station). She worked into the hole too far and fell off the end of the platform and injured her ankle. They told her it was her fault - she didn't pull the stop cord when she fell behind.'
Another team concept myth is that companies want highly-skilled and flexible workers to respond quickly to the ups and downs of the market. In fact, rather than learning a marketable skill, workers learn a series of job-specific tasks which depend mainly on manual dexterity, physical stamina, and the willingness to follow instructions precisely.
Work is speeded up, not so much by turning up the line speed but by giving each worker more tasks to perform. A GM videotape claimed in 1985 that NUMMI required only 14 hours of direct labor to assemble a Chevy Nova, compared to 22 hours to produce one of the previous 'J' series of cars.3
In traditional plants, workers with more seniority could become inspectors, maintenance workers or janitors. In MBS plants the assembly-line worker is expected to handle those chores in addition to regular assembly tasks. One of workers' biggest complaints about plants where such classifications have been abolished is that 'there aren't any good jobs left'.
There are elements of truth in most of the 'team concept' myths, including the notion of worker involvement. During the start-up phase, when the bugs are being worked out, the relatively few workers on the line do participate in designing the jobs. They get - and enjoy - the chance to help each other out, to be team-mates. But once the line reaches full speed and all the jobs are standardized, workers are tied to step-by-step instructions and barely have time to blow their noses, much less to help someone else who's fallen behind.
The NUMMI system maintains a strong sense of insecurity as a primary motivation, Workers believe that without it they would have no jobs at all. Management constantly reinforces this fear by suggesting (and in many cases threatening) to close the plant if it is not run properly. General Motors has become skilled at what Vice-President Al Warren calls the 'significant emotional event' - the threat of a shutdown to scare local unions into accepting the team concept.
Car workers from four continents discussed in a March 1988 conference how these methods were being introduced by Ford, GM, Mercedes, Chrysler and Volkswagen. MBS is appearing in the US, Mexico, the UK, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Belgium, Canada and Brazil. In the US, it is argued that the 'team concept' will enable American industry to beat world competition. But it seems obvious that no matter how hard management-by-stress gets employees to work, people elsewhere will do the same, and for less money.
The one bright spot on the horizon is that the team concept and management-by-stress are provoking an angry response from rank-and-file auto workers. In many US plants they are organizing against local union leaders who have signed team concept agreements. And they are fighting union bureaucrats who have been among the keenest supporters of the new methods; at NUMMI in the most recent union election, an opposition group, the 'People's Caucus', won a respectable number of union positions. And at the Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, the 'New Directions Coalition' in the local union say they refuse to be treated as 'so many parts'.
Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter are the authors of Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, Labor Notes/South End Press, Detroit, 1988. Both are former auto workers.
1 Working Detroit, Steve Babson, Ron Alpern, Dave Elsila, John Revitte, Adama Books 1984, p 30-31.
2 Toyota Production System: Practical Approach to Production Management, Industrial Engineering and Management Press, 1983.
3 Produced by NUMMI, GM Technical Liaison Office.
Japanese companies like Toyota and Nissan have turned the automobile industry on it head in the last 15 years by introducing a radically different approach to labour relations and production techniques. They are now opening factories in Europe, the UK and North America in order to jump tariff barriers and sell more cars to Western consumers.
* In 1960 the US produced one in every two cars; by 1987, US production had dropped to barely one in