Karl Marx and Lean Production

Rick Bohan

I stumbled across this article in my Google Alerts feed.  (If you’re not familiar with Google Alerts, I recommend that you look into it.  Essentially, you tell Google Alerts what topics you’re interested in, then Google scoops up articles on those topics and sends you a digest with links on a frequency that you choose.  I get it weekly.)  Take a few minutes to read it over.
I admit that I have a bit of regard for some Marxist arguments and points of view.  Not so much the “workers revolt and take over the system and everyone will live happily every after” point.  That one hasn’t worked out so well for the societies that tried it.  But some of Marx’s other points of view and predictions have had merit.  (Here’s an article that goes over some of those points more eloquently than I can.)
So when I saw this article critiquing lean production from the Marxist point of view, I was intrigued.  Cutting to the chase, the author doesn’t like lean.  But here’s the thing:  Most of what he thinks he doesn’t like about lean just isn’t so.  Here’s another thing:  Most of  what the author is wrong about, managers who think that they’re “in favor of lean” are also wrong about.  So…Marxists don’t like lean and capitalists (most of them, anyway) purport to like lean but they’re all pointing to the same wrong reasons for their positions.  Got it?
Let me pull some examples from the article to illustrate what I mean.  Here’s the second sentence of the article:  “It is a production system that bolsters the cost-reduction capacities of capitalist employers through an obsessive and competitive regime of intensifying work.”
That sentence is simply wrong.  As in, not true.  As in, completely and utterly in error.  As in, altogether full of shit.
But…it’s a definition that most hard-right capitalists wouldn’t have much argument with.  Lean messaging has always focused on cost reduction.  When managers ask for evidence that lean works, first and foremost, they are interested in evidence of cost savings.  When lean practitioners want to provide evidence of the value of lean, they point to cost savings.
So, Marxists complain that lean is all about cost reduction.  Capitalists ask, “So what’s the problem with that?”  Wise lean practitioners say:  “You’re both wrong.  The only goal of lean is to figure out how to provide more value to the customer.  Period.  Any organization who embarks on a lean effort holding cost reduction as the primary goal is very likely to fail.”
And that “work intensification” thing?  Altogether wrong.  I tell my clients that, when lean has been applied and is working the way it should, the workplace is much calmer and relaxed.  “Work intensification” doesn’t sound like “calm and relaxed” at all, does it?  But most hard-right capitalists, though they might choose different words (like, “work more efficiently”) probably don’t have a problem with a vision of their workers scurrying about the plant floor looking busy as all heck, right?
There is no work intensification in lean.  There is no “scurrying” or “working more efficiently” in lean.  There is only calm as the flow of work becomes more and more consistent and predictable.
Here’s another line from the article:  “[Lean] encourages workers to compete against one another…”  Utterly false.  But capitalists, too,  believe that “a bit of friendly competition” is good for the organization.  How else to explain “Employee of the Month” awards given to just twelve employees each year?  Lean seeks to remove competition and replace it with collaboration and coordination.
In the same sentence the author claims that lean “increases [workers’] dependence on employers”.  Implemented correctly, lean increases the autonomy of workers.  Again, though, most managers going into lean aren’t thinking about how to increase worker autonomy.  They believe that doing so would reduce their own control and authority.  They like the “tools” part of the “tools and results” lean message because it suggests that lean is all about getting workers to change their behaviors while leaders get to continue behaving the way they always have.  For those managers, it’s not about “worker autonomy”, which would mean that workers are making decisions and solving problems that currently are the domain of managers.  It’s about finally getting those darned workers to do what they should have been doing all along.
All to say, that too many capitalists and at least one Marxist don’t actually have much of a clue as to what lean really is.


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