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Lean Into It


by Michelle Ku
photos by Mark Cornelison

As a college student at Michigan State University in the ’60s, Tom Janoski worked on an automotive assembly line at a Chrysler plant in Trenton, Mich.

Janoski was a piston shooter, which happened to be the second hardest job at the plant. He would pick up a piston that was located on a rack above him, compress the rings on it, stick it into a cylinder, place it into a hole in the upside down engine block, and pull a handle that would punch the piston into the engine block.

For the first two weeks on the job, about every 15th piston would get stuck. Most of the time, he would be able to straighten it before the engine block moved to the next person’s station, but about two to three times a day, Janoski couldn’t fix it in time, which meant the entire line was forced to shut down until the problem was fixed.

At the time, shutting down a line was the worst crime you could commit at the factory, said Janoski, associate professor of sociology. Each time it happened, the foreman would come and give him an earful.

Forty years later, there’s still pressure to keep the line moving, but workers at plants that follow lean production methods are encouraged to stop the line if a mistake is made or if the quality of the product is suffering.

In June, Janoski and Darina Lepadatu, assistant professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University, were awarded a two-year, $195,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the consequences of lean production in the automotive industry and its impact on workers at six automotive companies — three Japanese transplants and three American companies.

The goal of the study is to interview 120 autoworkers about their experiences working in a lean production system. So far, Janoski and Lepadatu have interviewed 15 former workers from Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Toyota.

Janoski has been teaching a course on work and organization focusing on lean production in Japanese transplants for the last 20 years. It took him four years to receive the National Science Foundation grant to study the consequences of lean production.

In sociological terms, lean production is a new division of labor that companies have been using since the 1980s, Janoski said.

Photo courtesy of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association

Lean production focuses on improving quality, efficiency and flexibility, but the system only works if workers are able to successfully produce on a very tight schedule, Janoski said.

One of the major principles of lean production is "just in time inventory" in which supplies are ordered and delivered just as the parts are needed for that phase of production.

Just in time inventory allows an auto plant to produce three different models on a single line since the plant isn’t maintaining a large inventory of items needed for a single model, Janoski said.

Yet this method of production increases stress on workers and requires a high level of teamwork and coordination to accurately time the ordering and delivering of parts.

“Sometimes in lean production, you have people who deliver the supplies out in the trucks in the parking lot trying to find boxes of the particular parts that they need to get to the assembly line in the next 10 minutes and they can’t find the darn things that are supposedly in there somewhere,” Janoski said. “It makes the production process vulnerable to these kinds of problems and of course, this sort of thing increases stress, a tremendous amount of stress on people getting those parts and also a tremendous amount of stress with workers on the assembly line.”

Lean production also places overtime stress on autoworkers because they work six days a week, 10 hours a day. Mandatory overtime is built into schedule because the shifts at the auto plants are set up 10 hours apart.

While lean production places additional stress on workers, it also encourages workers to think creatively. Workers are placed in teams to help improve the product by coming up with kaizens, which focus on continuous improvement in safety, production and quality.

Lean production’s philosophy of enlisting workers to improve the product is a dramatic change from earlier divisions of labor concepts.

During the turn of the century, Frederick Taylor, an American mechanical engineer, pioneered “scientific management,” which is the idea that workers should not think on the job. Engineers have designed their jobs in the most efficient way possible and workers should just do their jobs the way the engineers tell them to do.

Henry Ford with Model T in 1921 - Image from the Collections of The Henry Ford Foundation 

Then Henry Ford created Fordism, which took Taylor’s model and applied it to the assembly line. Workers were still expected to do exactly as they were told, Janoski said. “Don’t think about the job, just do exactly what you’re expected to do by the engineers.”

Under lean production, which is often referred to as Toyotism because Toyota Motor Corporation pioneered the philosophy, workers are explicitly told to think on the job and to act as quality control managers.

“Under lean production, if you’re producing crap, you pull the cord and stop the line, we do not produce crap here,” Janoski said.

With Fordism, the line never shut down, Janoski said. “You make some mistakes fine, but the line keeps going.”

Janoski’s study will also address the other forms of division of labor such as McDonaldism, which takes the Fordism concept and tweaks it for the service industry by adding the emotion of smiling and interacting with customers by asking people how their day is and Disneyfication which is geared for the entertainment industry.

Ultimately, lean production is going to take over the world production process, Janoski said. For instance, nurses are now involved with lean production and coming up with total quality management kind of systems. It fits with the teams, kaizens and coming up with the improvement of products.

“Places that rely on Fordism, Taylorism and McDonaldism will be changing toward lean production concepts over time in the future,” Janoski said. “There are good consequences about why it’s becoming important and bad consequences because it’s tough.”

The lean production grant is Janoski’s third National Science Foundation grant. In 2001, he received a two-year, $186,000 grant to study how people become citizens in 18 industrialized companies. Janoski collected 37 years of data on naturalization policies from 18 countries for that project.

Janoski recently completed the manuscript for “The Ironies of Citizenship,” a book based on his study of naturalization policies. The book will be published by Cambridge University Press for the American Sociological Association convention in August 2010, which will be focused on citizenship. The theme of the upcoming conference is “Toward a Sociology of Citizenship: Inclusion, Participation and Rights.” Janoski will be part of a panel on citizenship at the conference. His first NSF grant was done on active labor market policies, which produced two other books.