Statement on Work Reorganization: Responding to Lean Production

"Our union has always understood and been committed to an efficient and productive workplace producing quality goods and providing quality services. New technology and new work processes, we recognize, include the potential for creating a more prosperous society, more leisure time, and improvements in our standard of living."

This publication is the CAW statement on Lean Production discussed and endorsed by the CAW National Collective Bargaining and Political Action Convention, May 1993. It builds on our earlier statement on work reorganization and addresses managerial efforts to introduce lean production. While the previous statement challenges the false promise of a "partnership" with management, the current one emphasizes the need to strengthen our own agenda around workplace change.

In sectors as different as auto and airline, electronics and rail, aerospace and fish processing, there is a common drive to what is called lean production. And in workplaces as diverse as plants, offices, rail yards, mines and hotels our members feel the pressure and stress of a production system whose logic is quicker, cheaper and faster.

This statement provides some background on lean production: What are its central features? What are the code words? What are its objectives and its likely consequences? It is not a rhetorical rejection of workplace change nor of co-operating with management, instead it is a studied criticism of a particular set of workplace changes and a specific managerial agenda.

Our union has always understood and been committed to an efficient and productive workplace producing quality goods and providing quality services. New technology and new work processes, we recognize, include the potential for creating a more prosperous society, more leisure time, and improvements in our standard of living.

But this potential never was, and is not today, automatic. It is conditional on the ability of working people, through their unions, negotiating how these changes are implemented and how they shape our lives. Today, we face the challenge of "lean production", which represents an attempt to limit these changes to the needs of management.

It reaffirms our goal of developing an effective working relationship with management based not on any superficial partnership, but on a negotiated compromise that addresses both worker and corporate concerns.

And it is clear about what goals we bring to that relationship - a more democratic workplace with more worker involvement and control and better working conditions. As this statement makes clear, lean production is an obstacle to achieving those goals. Good job design, a focus on the pace of work and production standards, the content of job and ergonomics, the placement of injured and disabled workers, deepening the skills workers have, more say over technological change and more training that provides for broader worker development are our measures of progressive workplace change. Pursuing these objectives will bring us into conflict with managements who are unwilling to modify their lean demands.

This statement will be the basis for more discussion, education and action. It is part of a broader effort to raise issues and advance our union's agenda for workplace change.

In solidarity,

Basil "Buzz" Hargrove


In 1989 our union passed its Statement on the Reorganization of Work. We were one of the first unions to adopt a national policy statement critical of workplace changes which came under the heading of team concept. More than anything else the statement challenged the idea of a partnership between labour and management. The statement was intended to resist a managerial offensive.

Management's objective was to gain union support for a change in the way things are done in the workplace; a campaign to make workers' goals the same as those of the company. In other words, management still wants workers and managers to collaborate in competition against other workers. The CAW statement argued instead for a working relationship with management that recognized the independent interests of workers, making it clear that:

That statement is as important now as it was then. But some things have changed. Companies have gone beyond the rhetoric of partnership. They are more aggressive in pushing their workplace agenda. They are more conscious of the changes they are pursuing. And companies are more confident in their ability to dramatically change production and the way we work. In the meantime, we too have changed. We have gained experience with new ways of working (such as CAMI) and with different managerial efforts to change our workplaces.

This document serves as an update. It is meant to complement the CAW Statement on the Reorganization of Work. While the previous statement focused more on the ideology of partnership and new managerial techniques, this statement addresses changes in jobs and production processes.

"We reject managerial efforts, under whatever name, which jeopardize workers' rights, undermine workplace conditions and erode the independence of the union."


"Competition for the sake of competition has dominated, and everything was sacrificed, including wages, working hours, profits, subcontractors, dealers, the lives of Japanese workers and employment opportunities of workers abroad...

Trade unions cooperated in this desperate competition for a share. Working hard, they lost their vision about for whom and what growth should be achieved."

Haruo Shimado
Prof. Keio University
JAW Report

Lean Production

Soon after we passed our statement a book entitled 'The Machine that Changed the World' reported the findings of a five year, $5 million (US) worldwide study into auto production organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a short time the book became an international business best-seller with an appeal far beyond the automotive sector.

The study reported two dramatic conclusions. The first was that the best Japanese companies could produce with "half the amount" required by North American or European producers. They produce a product with considerably less of everything - people, material, resources, space, etc. - than anyone else. And second, they did so primarily through the effective management of production and human resources. On this basis, MIT argued that a new production system called lean production was changing manufacturing on a worldwide basis. The claims in auto are now being extended to other sectors of the economy.

Lean production emerged as management's model for changing workplaces and work practices. Traditional workplaces are "robust," relying on buffers of all kinds - inventory, space, large rework areas, banks between operations, and extra workers. The objectives of lean production aim to strip away these buffers, reduce costs and involve workers in the efforts to do so.

Lean production's twin objectives are to reduce production time (lead time) and labour costs. In the end that means taking labour out of production and time out of labour. Despite the popularity of the book, the lean analysis is wrong on two accounts: first, in terms of what accounts for the so-called superiority of lean production and second in suggesting that it is a "win-win" situation for workers and managers.

The differences between lean companies and other companies are not found in developments such as teams, suggestion programs, small group improvement activities, multiskilling or the like. The biggest differences are found in practices such as the massive outsourcing (contracting out) of parts and final assembly. The outsourcing is done with low wages, insecure employment and fully using production capacity. Other differences are in technical developments such as the ease of making products (simple designs, fewer parts, quick assemblies). Most important, in terms of the labour process, is work intensification - tight work cycles, long hours, regimented work practices and significant managerial flexibility to use labour as it sees fit. It is here that lean production ends up.

Lean Workplaces

Lean production gets applied to workplaces through programs of quality management, waste elimination and continuous improvement. Whether it is TQM (Total Quality Management), Excellence!, CIP (Continuous Improvement Process), Synchronous Manufacturing, TPM (Total Production Maintenance) or whatever; whether it is in the railway, auto, airlines, fishing or other sectors; whether it is production workers, skilled trades, technical, service or office workers, the objective is to get lean production.

For example:

  • Quality Management means more than designing and producing the highest quality product or service. It has become a catch-all term for all the cost-cutting and intensification that goes with lean production. Quality ends up focusing on the cost of quality (can we do it without inspectors?). 'Building quality in' gets workers to treat each other as suppliers and customers rather than as co-workers; and 'quality consciousness' ends up in new absentee programs and significant attendance demands.
  • Waste gets defined to mean anything which is not absolutely essential to production. The idea is to get to the lowest level of all inputs - equipment, material and workers. Company activities are divided into two major types, those which add value and those which don't. Value added activities are those which directly change a product or service into its finished form; everything else is non-value added. All costs associated with non-value added functions are waste and are to be eliminated, whether it is buffers between operations, slack time, waiting time, walking space at workstations or more generally indirect labour such as the skilled trades.

Much of the waste reduction effort involves a detailed look at jobs, work processes and work areas to rid them of non-value added operations and to achieve cost-cutting, job reductions and a tighter work effort. The more sophisticated companies launch a two-stage attack on non-value added activities. Those activities that can be immediately eliminated, and those that currently are necessary but can be eliminated if the production process is changed.

TQM - Total Quality Management

A study of 100 British companies by Chicago-based A.T.Kearney found just one-fifth believed their TQM had produced tangible benefits...

Among 500 U.S. firms surveyed by Arthur D. Little, only a third reported their TQM programs had a significant impact on their competitiveness...

The Total Quality Muddle Report on Business Magazine November 1992

  • Continuous Improvement eliminates waste by changing the methods of production. Continuous improvement requires the personal involvement of workers. At issue is not only what we do, but what we know. Continuous improvement relies on workers' contributions through schemes such as suggestion programs or small group activities geared to problem solving. The goal is to get workers to support cost-cutting, to accept reducing jobs and to participate along with management in changing work processes and practices.

Under lean production even the ground rules of employee involvement have shifted. In earlier programs there was a more subtle, even more open approach where it was recognized that, at least initially, workers would try to improve their working environment and working conditions.

Now the focus is clearly on "what benefits the company", not what benefits workers.

Redefining Employee Involvement

"Emphasis on what benefits the company. No democratic elections about what to work on... Management guides what Small Group Improvement Activities are doing.... Not morale building QC Circles"

David W. Buker, Inc. & Associates
(Consultants), Just In Time

"Employee Groups are focused on the resolution of specific issues which serve to limit the performance of the company. As these issues are addressed they are effectively 'cashed in'..."

Spectrum Management (Consultants)
Synchronous Manufacturing

Examples of Non-Value Work

Bending and stooping down
Searching for parts or tools
Reading schedules
Moving parts and materials
Repositioning parts during assembly
Handling the same part more than once
Putting parts into storage bins
Taking parts out of storage bins
Removing parts from excessive protective wraps
Handling cardboard and trash
Reaching excessively
Obtaining and disposing of air tools
Entering and exiting the vehicle during assembly Grasping
Disposing of parts
Twisting (body motion)

Source: Chrysler 'Continuous Improvement'


Categorizing Waste

Worker waiting for machine to complete cycle

Worker waiting for material

Worker waiting for machine set-up or repair

Source: General Motors 'Synchronous'

Workers are under stress from fast paced, intense, repetitive work while at the same time preferred, off-line jobs are eliminated and time is squeezed at every workstation. The attack on waste, the aim of low-cost quality and continuous improvements, means more and more control over workers' time and activities, a faster workpace, longer and more irregular hours. As well, jobs are more standardized and the workplace is more regimented.

Getting To Lean

In many workplaces management is unilaterally driving the changes. Gone are the collaborative appeals to workers. There is little attempt to gain union participation. Instead, swat teams parachute into the workplace or work area and leave with cost reductions whether or not these reductions are reasonable or can be maintained in the long term. Workers end up with changed jobs and a reorganized workplace.

In some workplaces local unions are being asked to participate in a process of change. Usually a supposedly neutral consultant comes in and management says "there is no agenda," only the "need to change". Before long there are orientation and training sessions, steering committees and design teams, special project groups or task forces and all headed toward lean production. Programs are often designed before the union is approached. Unions are brought in to tinker with the details.

Whatever the particular management approach - unilateral action or union involvement - the focus is on changing production and the way we work. To respond we need to focus on three things.

1. On the objectives of lean production.
2. On the various management techniques and structures of participation.
3. On the changes in production methods and systems.

The goals of lean production are:

  • To reduce the number of jobs.
  • To reduce labour hours.
  • To intensify the work effort.
  • To eliminate non-value added parts of the work.
  • To increase management control.
  • To undermine the independence of the union.

Even if we are successful in resisting a partnership with management, the goals of lean production can still be achieved through changes to production methods. In responding to lean production we have two sets of tasks. One is taking on the ideology of the system. The other is responding to the changes in the production process. One without the other will be ineffective.

From Push to Pull Production

Take for example the shift from Push to Pull production. Moving from batch production to flow production or one-at-a-time production is a central element of lean or "synchronous" production.

The move from Push to Pull seems like a common sense approach to production. Why produce more than what is immediately needed by the next process? Why have inventory as a buffer in the system? But to maintain the continuous flow required by one-at-a-time production requires that the time for each job has to be standardized. Set times for each job often eliminates personal time. There is no time to take a breath. The move from Push to Pull means idle time quickly becomes a target of the change and must be eliminated for the system to work. What appears as a shift in the technical system (Push to Pull) ends up changing the social relations of production - in this case personal time for workers and flexibility that benefits workers.

A similar point can be made about eliminating buffers. The idea that production can occur without problems is make-believe. That production lines or offices can operate without hitches and hiccups, or be defect-free, is fantasy. It is simply an impossible goal. In workplaces something is always going wrong and there are always problems to contend with. If this is the case, then how does an operation function without buffers? It doesn't.

Changing Production Methods
  • Take straight lines and turn them into U-shaped cells.
  • Move from a department organization to a product based organization.
  • Move from 'push' to 'pull' production.
  • Integrate operations by eliminating banks and buffers.
  • Tie sub-assemblies directly to the line.

What lean or synchronous production successfully does, is change the buffers in the system. Instead of the buffers being stock between operations, the buffer in lean production is our personal time. Lean production does not do away with buffers, but the buffers become less visible. Workers are the buffers. Overtime is the buffer in lean production. What starts as a seemingly neutral and commonsense change to production ends up as an assault on collective agreement provisions such as eliminating advance notice for overtime or voluntary overtime.

Union Direction

It is important for us to address the changes associated with lean or synchronous production.

These issues confront unions and labour movements around the world. There are national debates within unions and different unions argue in favour of different responses. Some argue in support of collaboration in the hopes of forging a coalition with business, others have grudgingly gone along in the face of what is seen as inevitable. Some have just decided to get involved. Others have resisted involvement while workplaces have been reorganized just the same.

Since lean production operates in different ways it has to be addressed in different ways - from the day to day experience of the job to the logic of competitiveness. How we strengthen and rebuild the union in the workplace and how as a union we respond to the changes in the workplace are two sides of the same coin. The CAW strategy is to oppose lean production and work to change it through negotiations. This could mean involvement and participation but it always means resistance and change.

  • We have to challenge the ideology of lean production - the partnership with management and the drive to make workers compete against each other.
  • We have to focus on the changes to our jobs and the production system.
  • And we have to respond to new managerial techniques and workplace structures (teams, rotation, etc).

Working in Japan

One Japanese survey notes that only 4.5% of Japanese would advise their children to take a job in the auto industry.

Reasons against working in Japanese Auto Industry:

  • Pay too low for intense work 42.8%
  • High work intensity 40.5%
  • Onerous shift systems 40.1%
  • Much work on holidays and overtime 35.0%
  • Unfriendly personnel practices 33.2%

Masami Nomura The End of Toyotism ?


Fair Day's Work: Labour Waste

"Therefore, W.P.S. (Windsor Production System) requires that the slack time at each work station be minimized by shifting work content between stations so that the work load at each is nearly the same and all are approximately equal in cycle time.

This will avoid the situation of the operator waiting for the machine and wasting time. It is anticipated that this approach will better utilize labour resources and approach a "Fair Day's Work" policy application as idle labour time is minimized.

In addition, it is proposed that wherever possible, equipment be designed so as to operate automatically which will permit an operator to manage more machines and further reduce labour waste. In order to further maximize labour resources, it is important that equipment layout within processes be given careful consideration so as to reduce waste of motion and transport time."

General Motors Windsor Production System Training Manual

Setting a Union Agenda

Work Pace and Production Standards

Lean production intends to redefine a fair day's labour. In management's view there is too much slack in the system and too much idle time in each of our jobs. Within each work cycle management wants to change how much time we work and to remove the slack time. The goal is to get as close as possible to sixty seconds of work in every minute. It is an unreasonable goal. There is a fine line between vision and illusion. Lean production helps management cross the line.

There needs to be a brake on unreasonable demands and clear limits to the intensity of work.

In earlier times the CAW developed language around production standards and work standards regulating model changeovers, the use of time and motion studies and resisting speedups. Now, with continuous improvement and constantly changing work standards, we need modified or new language.

Workers shouldn't have to say, as they do in lean production, that they can't survive to retirement. Instead, the workplace should be characterized by a comfortable work pace - one that is sustainable. This requires three elements:

1. A recognition that a comfortable pace involves discretionary time and the possibility for workers to vary the job and the pace;
2. Adequate relief staff;
3. A regulated (negotiated) process for changing job content and job times.

Although there is renewed attention to workplace learning, company controlled training emphasizes programs aimed at changing attitudes and providing skills which facilitate work reorganization (communication skills, working in teams, continuous improvement). Little is being provided in terms of basic skills, opportunities for academic upgrading, technical training or in the areas of critical thinking and personal development. Those are the elements of good training.

The CAW's goal is to change the extent of training (there is not enough), the distribution of training (it is uneven and available to a selected few) and the content of the training (it is company defined). This requires a more active union role in workplace training issues, a role that is built around:

  • Training time that is guaranteed (i.e. forty hours a year) and that is available to everyone without production pressures.
  • Joint control of training programs where the content is co-determined and the delivery is based on the principles of adult education.
Job Design

In the drive to lean, jobs are being redesigned. For those who claim a 'win-win' situation, this means jobs which are enriched and enlarged and workers who have authority and responsibility. In reality, jobs are made tighter and more intense and workers become 'multitasked', more flexible and are assigned more indirect duties. Developing good job design means:

  • Jobs which are constructed on the basis of deepening skill and expanding options rather than the reverse.
  • Workplaces with a mix of jobs and a negotiated method of moving to different jobs.
  • Workplaces where injured workers are accommodated without additional pressure on co-workers.
More Union Input

We are not interested in becoming junior partners in production but we do want to develop an effective working relationship with management which improves the conditions of work for our members as well as the productive capacity of the workplace. There are areas of the workplace where we want more input. We want expanded opportunities to discuss production issues from a union perspective. Some of these areas include:

  • Training committees to assess training needs and develop training programs.
  • Ergonomics committees devoted to improving the design of workstations and the design of jobs rather than adapting the individual to the job function.
  • Technology committees that focus on the design, implementation and effects of new technology, that argue for skill based technical change and advance a model of appropriate technology.
  • Environmental committees which discuss environmentally sound products and production methods.

Japanese Workers

  • We feel all petered out. How much harder must we work?
  • Employees are exhausted... (companies have been) too demanding of their employees.
  • The workers had to do 350 hours of overtime per year.
  • The industry will collapse from the inside, due to the labour shortage and low profits.

Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers Union (JAW) Japanese Automobile Industry in the Future: Toward Co-existence with the World, Consumers & Employees, 1992


In every situation of workplace change the union evaluates its role. We assess what we are strong enough to resist, accommodations we are willing to make, and strategies for putting our own issues at the forefront. There are always questions: What kind of involvement? Where is management going? What are our goals? Can we 'unionize' company programs? Should we resist them? How do we achieve our objectives?

At times we got involved in various management programs to monitor the process. But lean production programs cannot be monitored from the inside. They have to be either resisted or changed. Resistance can't be passive nor can criticism be limited to exposing irrational management practices. Instead there needs to be a clear statement of the difference between management objectives and workers' interest. Similarly, if the union is involved, it can't be passive - that would only leave us trying to fly the plane from the rear of the cabin.

Participation must be based on advancing the interests of workers and strengthening the union as an organization. In any process of change this requires:

  • A clear union agenda developed with and communicated to the membership;
  • The resources to support effective participation;
  • An educational program with the membership
  • An evaluation of the merits of involvement.


CAMI Workers on Teams & Team Leaders Teams

Highlights from the 1991 Convention: CAW Statement on the Reorganization of Work

As a union, we need to look behind the surface of "partnership" and ask ourselves what it really means and what the result will be. Workers belong and pay dues to our union because they want to improve their standard of living through collective bargaining, and to improve their workplace conditions through strong union representation dealing with grievances, health and safety, human rights, and equitable treatment.

This "partnership" and its promises are false. For all the talk about jointness and worker control, employers are certainly not putting true equality between themselves and their employees on the agenda. Management will continue to jealously guard the management's rights clause and to unilaterally decide when to modernize, how much to invest, what to produce, with what kind of technology, and so on. The truth is management's agenda is not about surrendering its power, but of finding more sophisticated ways to extend it.

Similarly, accepting the management agenda will not guarantee jobs. In fact, keeping workers uncertain about their jobs, and therefore weaker, is part and parcel of the new management agenda. Our jobs will continue to depend on interest rates and exchange rates, on government policy and international developments, on the power of companies to export jobs in the name of profit-maximization, and on our own ability to join others and mobilize for social change.

Nor are these programs about creating a more liveable workplace for working people. In spite of the rhetoric, the real aim of these programs is to break down worker resistance to the changes management wants to implement. And this includes trying to get workers to voluntarily put aside their own workplace needs and identify with the needs that management has defined - a process that will undermine past gains in the workplace.

At the center of the management agenda is the ideology of "competitiveness". Even without the rest of the management package, we have already lost if "competitiveness" is the agreed starting point. In subsequent discussions or negotiations based on competitiveness, the bottom line will always revert to "what's good for the corporation?" So it is critical that we reject competitiveness as the dominant criterion guiding our actions.

Rejecting "competitiveness" is not the same as rejecting the importance of quality and productivity. We understand the value of quality products for other workers, consumers and ourselves. Forty years ago, autoworkers argued for a better quality car: one that was safe, conserved fuel, and was environmentally-sensitive. The corporations responded that this was not a money-making venture and that decisions about the product were a management, not a union, concern. Over the years, we have had running battles with corporations over quality: we argued for more workers and a more reasonable workpace to improve quality, while foremen and supervisors, feeling the pressures of volume requirements, rejected this in favour of more output. And where management has come to us with a specific quality problem, we have assisted in the search for a solution.

We also understand that improved productivity - when it really is productivity not just speedup, and when it is actually shared with workers - is a basic part of a growing standard of living. We have not rejected new technology but insisted that we get advance notice, proper training, a more meaningful input into the process of tech change and a share in the benefits of the greater output per worker. The facts are that Canadian workers have nothing to be defensive about in terms of our current and past contributions to quality and productivity.

But competitiveness is something quite different: workers can produce high quality products, can be very productive, and can even show restraint in their wage demands - yet their competitiveness can be declining. The reason is that "competitiveness" is a relative concept: no mater how well we do, if others do it still cheaper, or if the Canadian dollar is artificially high, then Canadian workers will be less competitive no matter what else we reasonably do.

Accepting "competitiveness" puts us on a treadmill, a rat-race we can't win. It means trying to undermine fellow workers in other Canadian facilities and workers in other developed countries. It forces us to compete with countries whose living standards remain below where we were decades ago and it leads towards comparisons with regimes that keep standards low by denying basic human and trade union rights. It means concessions today and even more concessions tomorrow as other workers feel forced to join the downward spiral. Unlike quality and productivity, the logic of competitiveness adds a dimension that threatens all our achievements.

Produced by the CAW Research and Communications Departments, 1993 205 Placer Court North York, Willowdale Ontario M2H 3H9 (416) 497-4110 Fax: (416) 495-6552

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