A lean future for workers? A response to Matt Vidal’s Management Divided

Issue: 178

Bob Carter

The term “lean production” refers to a series of organisational processes and techniques developed by Toyota and popularised by James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos in their bestselling work, The Machine That Changed The World: The Triumph of Lean Production (Macmillan, 1990).1 Their work, based on extensive access to international car plants, claimed that those companies that got closest to Toyota’s production model generated the highest levels of labour productivity and lowest levels of quality defects. These results were achieved by adopting two of Toyota’s organisational characteristics: transferring the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to the teams of production workers adding value to the car on the line; and shifting the responsibility for detecting quality defects to the same teams. The team became the hallmark of lean: the base for “multi-skilling”, job rotation, task enlargement and worker participation in continuous improvement activity. These features in turn enabled the central principle—that all waste should be removed from the production process. Waste was defined as anything other than the use of the minimum amount of equipment, materials, parts and working time essential to production. There was no voice of labour within the research, but the authors were optimistic that the challenge of new “creative stress” and participation in problem-solving, aimed at optimising the rhythm of production, as well as its flow, efficiency and output quality, would be positive for workers and allow them to overcome the mind-numbing stress of Fordist mass production. Since the 1990s, the influence of lean production has spread far beyond car factories and been embraced by managers in settings as varied as hospitals and the British civil service.2

The spread of lean production has been encouraged by a slew of articles in management journals advocating the adoption of lean techniques such as kaizen (continuous improvement) and kanban systems (internal ordering systems that ensure “just in time” rather than “just in case” production), with little concern for their impact on labour conditions. In Management Divided: Contradictions of Labor Management, Matt Vidal notes that the left has been far from silent on the malign effects of lean production on labour. According to Vidal, critical studies of lean seem “to confirm the predictions from labour process theory. The rhetoric of lean production promised teamwork and empowerment but the reality was degraded, intensified work and increased managerial control”.3

Vidal’s project is novel. He attempts to show not only that the left’s outright rejection of lean production is a mistake, but also that a particular version of lean is in the interests of workers and consistent with Marxism. To sustain this claim, he must go beyond Womack, Jones and Roos, as well as most other advocates of lean production, and address its effects on workers and their conditions. In doing so, Management Divided argues that workers’ participation and empowerment should be further extended beyond the Toyota model because expanded worker involvement results in mutual gains for both capital and labour—more efficient production as well as benefits for the workers.

Yet, there are significant problems with Vidal’s approach, which encompass its methodology, theory and evidence. After broadly outlining the major features of Vidal’s argument, we will explore the weaknesses of his approach in order to demonstrate that, despite its avowed aim, it falls short of offering a classical Marxist account of the capitalist production process. Workers and trade unions have every reason to continue their opposition to the adoption of lean methods.

Vidal’s argument

Vidal adopts a broadly regulationist framework.4 Advocates of this approach stress that capitalism has gone through distinct periods of regulation and capital accumulation, from a competitive mode of regulation with an extensive regime of accumulation in the 19th century, through a monopoly mode of regulation from the 1930s onwards. This monopoly mode of regulation underpinned mass consumption and thus sustained intensive accumulation, a period characterised as Fordism. In the late 20th century, faltering productivity under Fordism eventually led to a structural crisis that gave rise to post-Fordism. A major feature of post-Fordism is a recognition of the need to harness the skills, knowledge and involvement of workers in order to overcome falling productivity. Thus, Fordism was characterised by mass production using semi-skilled labour, but post-Fordism is associated with lean production and worker empowerment. Vidal is in no doubt that today “lean production remains the undisputed model of global best practice in manufacturing”.5 His empirical findings, moreover, lead him to conclude, “Many managers in post-Fordist United States manufacturing are interested in qualitative improvement of operational routines rather than quantitative work intensification”.6

Despite the overall triumph of lean, Vidal notes that its take-up has been uneven and, where adopted, it is frequently imperfectly implemented. A central question for him is why, given its superiority in terms of the efficient production of low cost, high quality goods and services, lean production has not been more widely and comprehensively embraced. His answer is that “within manufacturing, the common strategy of using workers exclusively for routine manual labour is a ‘satisficing’ approach”, by which he means managers “settle for good enough rather than maximising profit, efficiency, labour control or anything else”.7 There is a better, lean alternative, which involves “enlisting workers in abstract cognitive labour”. Yet, instead of developing higher skills and decision-making powers, managers persist with habitual routines that reproduce “inferior outcomes in terms of achieving dynamic efficiency, including low costs with high levels of quality, flexibility and organisational learning”.8

There are several reasons why managers persist with practices that are seemingly not in the best interests of capital. Prime among them is the contradictory pressures managers face between ensuring labour discipline (so workers produce sufficient levels of output) as opposed to empowering labour. These pressures manifest themselves as: utilising routine labour versus abstract cognitive labour power; giving minimal training versus providing substantial training (for example, training in a single skill versus multiple skills or training in narrow skills versus broad skills); or standardising work versus allowing discretion and autonomy.9 One consequence of the choices thrown up by these oppositions is that, even where lean production is adopted, it “can be implemented in distinct ways, with distinct emphases, depending on the orientation of management and the power and orientation of labour”.10 Vidal defines four models of lean production, but his main concern is distinguishing between (i) those that implement all the features associated with lean, particularly high involvement of trained and autonomous, versatile workers empowered to solve problems and make decisions (albeit in limited areas) and (ii) those where, in contrast, lean is more a toolbox rather than an integrated system, with workers merely consulted and their autonomy curtailed. Related to these contrasting approaches to lean production, the book is concerned with “presenting extensive evidence…of managers who prioritise qualitative process improvement over quantitative work intensification”.11 Associated with this rather generous assessment of managers, he also maintains that most workers either “did not experience any work intensification” or “experienced qualitative work intensification” that they found to be positive because it made their work less boring and more interesting.12

Despite these positive experiences, Vidal is unable to find huge enthusiasm among workers for the adoption of lean production. Indeed, he notes that the potential for lean to improve their experience of work through teamwork, upskilling, job enlargement, cross-training and job rotation has not stopped workers resisting management initiatives.13 As lean is predicated on workers’ flexibility, initiative and involvement, any reticence or active resistance pushes management to adopt lean techniques that cede little control to workers. This thwarts lean’s potential efficiencies and reduces management incentives to relax control, enlarge workers’ skills and increase their autonomy. Vidal’s explanation for this vicious circle is that workers’ alienation, born of their experiences of past management failures and bad faith, leads workers to distrust changes even when acceptance would improve their experiences of work.

Marx and management

Vidal’s attempt to enlist Karl Marx’s ideas about alienation to support his general direction is unconvincing. By stating that “lean production remains the undisputed model of global best practice”, his framework accepts, and positively promotes as a goal, the logic of capital.14 The ramifications of “best practice” are not discussed. The roles of profitability and exploitation are, in this assessment, legitimised. It is difficult to imagine how any such treatment of the idea of the best practice of capital could be anything other than an endorsement that encourages workers to collaborate in promoting interests that are hostile to their own.

Vidal is aware of the left-committed studies demonstrating a catalogue of harmful effects resulting from lean production systems, but he does not address them directly.15 He finds no substantive faults in the studies’ designs or methodologies, simply dismissing them as being “too hastily generalised from case studies of auto assembly plants”.16 This is inexcusably inaccurate. Of those he cites, Andy Danford’s study was of component companies in South Wales with profiles not unlike many of the companies examined by Vidal; a study by myself, Danford, Debra Howcroft, Helen Richardson, Andrew Smith and Phil Taylor centred on state taxation offices; and Rick Delbridge wrote about his time as a worker in a television assembly plant and an automotive components factory.17 Both inside and outside the car industry, the most detailed sociological studies have been unanimous that lean harms workers. Delbridge, Peter Turnbull and Barry Wilkinson, for instance, basing their arguments on both primary and secondary sources, claim:

The “just in time”/“total quality management” manufacturing system intensifies work as a result of the increased surveillance and monitoring of the workers’ activities, its heightening of responsibility and accountability, the harnessing of peer pressure within “teams” and via “customers”, and the fostering of “involvement” in waste elimination and continuous improvement of the production process.18

Danford notes dryly:

To further the efficient extraction of surplus value and capital accumulation, the Japanese transplants, as employers of shop-floor operatives above all else, are collectively driven by a characteristic ethos of “management by detail”; that is, a more exact management of such little details as labour utilisation, labour discipline, labour control and labour cost.19

For all Management Divided’s repetition of lean mantras, there is little engagement with detail.20 “Empowerment”, for instance, plays a central role in justifying the acceptability of lean to workers. The term has been used widely in business school texts, but its proponents have never really provided any evidence that workers have gained the ability to change their working practices in substantial ways that are beneficial to the quality of their working lives. In the original Japanese management texts, particularly for the pioneering Toyota model, this empowerment (a term they never actually used) related to new worker responsibilities in the organisation of teamwork and kaizen. Japanese practitioners were very clear that these processes were aimed at appropriating workers’ practical knowledge in the service of continuous improvements to the efficiency of production processes, not continuous improvement to workers’ lives. The gradual elimination of waste was central to this. Waste was seen in terms of buffers, both material and human, the minutiae of unneeded worker operations and human movements, and so on. The aim was to reach an optimum level of labour and materials required for the production process, which was a level never to be reached because of the demands for continuous improvement. Crucial to this process is stripping labour out of production, thereby resulting in labour intensification. Intensification should not be seen in a Chaplinesque, Modern Times fashion, as simply meaning speed-ups, but as movement to a rhythm of work that is steady, constant, continuous and without unsanctioned breaks. Workers attain a few extra (low level) skills through their participation in this. That’s the extent of “empowerment”.

Vidal’s methodology also raises questions. The research was carried out some 15 years ago, before the 2008 global crash, and the changed economic circumstances that followed have possibly eliminated some of the companies and changed others into ones much less interested in worker voice and more focused on cost-cutting.21 The companies are anonymised, and Vidal attempts no updating, so it is impossible to evaluate his claims that high involvement lean production implementers were more efficient than partial implementers. Indeed, despite his strong assertion, he is forced to recognise this:

I do not have systematic performance data to directly test the hypothesis that high involvement lean outperforms a consultative approach to lean in the Toyota mould, but I believe the data I present…will be sufficiently compelling to make the hypothesis plausible and motivate future research.22

The failure to situate the analysis within the real economic conditions of US capitalism is partially masked by his references to stages of growth and the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism from the 1970s. Yet, this framework gives little confidence in, or coherence to, his argument. He initially specifies these stages as “accumulation regimes, in a broadly regulation theoretic sense”, with distinct and dominant logics of production encompassing manufacturing, finance and retail.23 In this perspective, there is a fundamental break between Fordism, with its institutional Fordist/Taylorist logic of labour management, and post-Fordism, where “the cornerstone logics of labour management are lean production and worker empowerment”.24 There is little overall consistency, however, with the idea of differing accumulation regimes having earlier been unravelled through the weakening from two distinct stages to “institutional logics of best practice, which are widely used as models but not uniformly adopted across the economy or even within a single sector”. Here, the regulationist approach is effectively abandoned, with Vidal agreeing with those who regard the “notion of a radical break with the past” as untenable.25

References to Marx are apparent in much of the analysis. Vidal develops and operationalises, for instance, “a theory of alienation to help explain the workforce contradiction, namely, workers resisting or being reticent towards their own partial empowerment”.26 The concept of alienation has obvious parallels with Marx’s approach, although nowhere does Vidal offer a formal exposition of the concept.27 Instead, he comments, “Marx vehemently denounced the denial of the needs of workers as humans, in terms of skill development and opportunities for intellectual engagement in work, under the detailed division of labour”.28 The corollary of this emphasis is that lean production can offer exactly these things. By framing alienation in this way, Vidal claims that workers’ resistance and reticence to accept attempts to empower them are both caused by alienation and prevent its alleviation.29

Resistance to lean production is “driven by two concrete manifestations of alienation”.30 First, workers have long experience of management refusal to consider suggestions for improvement and, even when managers solicit suggestions, these are frequently rejected. Second, alienation encourages workers to attempt “to make work more meaningful, realise a purpose or feel pride in their work”.31 Consequently, rather than accept offers to reverse the detailed division of labour and become involved in problem solving, workers cling to their traditional sources of esteem and comfort. Vidal stresses, for instance, that “many workers embrace Fordist notions of efficiency and proper management ownership of responsibilities”.32 In effect, workers are complicit in their own continued degradation. This conclusion is only possible through an incomplete reading of the Marxist concept of alienation. Such a reading places little importance on the process of exploitation, a process integral to Marx’s conception of alienation from his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to his mature Capital. Workers produce products and services that do not belong to them; their labour is externalised, rearing above them as an alien power—capital—that controls their lives and impoverishes their wider social relations.33

Vidal is equally loose when using labour process theory. His analysis diverges significantly from the work of the pioneer of labour process theory, Harry Braverman.34 In Vidal’s eyes, Braverman’s theory is reduced to an emphasis on “deskilling and degradation of labour” as “overriding imperatives of capitalist development”.35 Against this, he argues that managerial strategies are contradictory, stemming from “the underlying contradiction between the forces and relations of production”.36 Again, the reference to Marx is purely nominal, with Vidal simplifying the relationship between the labour process (as part of the forces of production) and the valorisation process:

The labour process question concerns how to organise the overall production process, including the division of labour, production and inventory control, process control, and quality control. The valorisation question concerns the narrower issue of how to best utilise labour within an overall labour process… In the post-Fordist era of flexible organisations and rapid technical change, the valorisation question becomes a real dilemma for management strategies: whether to empower workers through multi-skilling, problem solving and decision-making authority?37

This is not the place to rehearse Marx’s and Braverman’s ideas on the labour process. However, it is clear that, for Marx, although the capitalist production process did indeed comprise the creation of use values through concrete labour and a valorisation process, they could not be simply separated; the valorisation process was the “determining, dominating and overriding” one.38 According to this formulation, “the labour process was no more than an instrument of the valorisation process” and cannot be reduced to “whether or not to empower workers via multi-skilling, problem solving and decision-making authority”.39 Nor can the forces of production (including the techniques of lean production) be treated as neutral. As Marxist economist Guglielmo Carchedi insists, “For Marx, all knowledge is class-determined and thus has a class-content. This includes also the natural sciences and techniques”.40

In dealing with managers, Vidal references Marx’s analysis of the dual role of management, an analysis that is the basis for the book’s title. Vidal, following Marx, notes that, although managers play a productive role in the coordination and planning of work, their role in controlling and supervising the labour of others is not part of the labour process because it adds no use values. However, Vidal perceives the latter not as a function of capital, but as unproductive labour.41 Although, as Vidal points out, these roles conflict, it is by no means clear that management is divided by a simple binary choice between “opting for discipline (for example, by restricting workers to routine manual labour to ensure sufficient output)” and opting for “coordination (for example, cross-training and empowering workers so that they can contribute abstract cognitive labour with the goal of increasing organisational flexibility and continuous improvement)”.42 This line of argument suggests that training workers to contribute abstract cognitive skills somehow releases them from capitalist discipline and production demands. However, as Carchedi makes clear, within capitalist production:

Knowledge produced by mental labour subject to capitalist relations of production must be informed by the rationality of capital, not by the rationality of labour. The two are diametrical opposites. The former is informed by exploitation, competition and inequality; the latter, by egalitarianism, cooperation and self-management. The former is functional for increasing exploitation and profitability; the latter for satisfying the needs of labour.43

Nor are weaknesses of theory rescued by strong empirical evidence. Vidal’s claim that his interviews demonstrate benefits of properly implemented lean production, and the problems of not doing so, is far from convincing. A relatively small number of workers were interviewed—59 workers in 31 firms, less than two per company—and it is not specified how they were selected. It is unlikely that managers agreed to give access to the most critical elements of the workforce. Just as great a problem is how Vidal’s concern to validate his thesis appears to lead him towards being selective in the use of data that suggest competing explanations of workers’ (and managers’) experiences and motivations. These disparities can be illustrated through examination of four areas of substantive importance: empowerment, autonomy and control; the intensification of work; the routine politics of production; and wages, terms and conditions.

Empowerment, autonomy and control

In the “best” instances of lean implementation workers were deemed to have decision-making powers over problem solving and production methods. In one interview, a machinist explained how helpful he found a kaizen event:

They came in here, and they actually showed us how to do this and run these meetings. We went out there, and we did a job, and we videotaped it while I did the job. We came back upstairs, and then we put it on the monitor and… You could actually see how many steps we were taking that were way too many.44

For all Vidal’s stress that lean was a break with Taylorism, this self-implemented process mirrors traditional time and motion studies.45 Moreover, as he notes:

Continuous improvement can only happen on an organisation-wide basis if there is a procedure for standardising best practice. This means, within a “lean as system” approach, worker empowerment is limited to collective autonomy, that is, involving workers in group decisions, thus precluding high levels of individual autonomy.46

The wider significance of this observation is not confronted by Vidal, and the implications of continuous improvement need further exploration. Innovations that stem from workers’ “autonomy”, as decisions apparently freely made, turn into rigid standard operating procedures, embedded and compulsory: autonomy under lean is transformed into its opposite.

A similar process can happen within teams. Vidal quotes a manager in a company “noteworthy for its relatively systematic and long-term approach to restructuring”:

It’s going to be a long time to actually get into peer pressure types of issues with the factory floor employees exerting that pressure on each other. That’s a real long-term challenge. We won’t get there for three or four years. However, within the next year you’ll see the scheduling of jobs done by shop floor employees.47

Vidal acknowledges that there is evidence from other studies that lean has resulted in co-workers exerting peer pressure to discipline each other, but there is no indication that he actively explored this issue. He restricts his comments to saying, “This is not a theme that emerged in my interviews with workers”.48

Intensification of labour

Vidal provides examples given by workers of increased productivity. In most accounts this increase would be an indication of the intensification of labour. Among the examples given is production levels at Industrial Pumps, which have gone “from about 15 pumps a day to about 22 now…with the same 35 guys working on the shop floor doing the same work but going from 40 percent on-time to almost 90 percent”.49 Vidal throughout avoids systematically examining quantitative measures of intensity and the implications for rates of exploitation. Central to his argument is that managers are more concerned about qualitative improvement (increased knowledge and responsibilities) in routines rather than in quantitative work intensification, and he shows no interest in quantitative changes. His focus is largely on workers’ subjective experiences of qualitative and quantitative changes: “Some workers might experience moderate forms of either type of intensification as an improvement in their work situation because they reduce boredom and monotony”.50 He has little difficulty in recording that some workers were positive about learning more about the product and supporting the implementation of lean. One of these workers was a union president, but he also revealed that he regarded “those resisting lean production and empowerment as a separate faction giving them ‘trouble’”.51

Where there is direct evidence of quantitative increases in demands, Vidal has a methodology that negates its significance by relying on workers’ reactions to changes. However, these reactions barely strengthen his argument. Here is his account of a worker in Plastic Containers:

He explained how management explicitly opted for speed up instead of getting leaner… They opted to focus on maximising machine uptime and having workers run two machines. While he noted that many workers did complain about speeding up, from his perspective running one machine is so boring—these are automatic machines—that having to run two is an improvement and that having to pay more attention makes the work less boring.52

Vidal does not consider the possibility that this response may not last.

Once again, the complainers remain voiceless and, because it was reported as less boring, Vidal codes this as “positive qualitative intensification”, implying that it is a progressive development. Interestingly, the very next interview provides an example of someone in the same factory who had also been subject to a series of changes, including job rotation and a reduction of downtime. What he liked about the changes was the machining element: “You start the machine up and everything comes out perfect… That’s what I like doing. Like, I don’t have to do anything…just sit there all day and watch it go by, and maybe sweep up the floor”.53 Vidal also regards this equally as “positive qualitative intensification”.

This sensitivity to workers’ subjectivity makes it even more surprising that Vidal seems wilfully blind to other significant information from worker interviews that would be highlighted in any evaluation of lean production from a worker perspective. In a transcript of an interview with a woman worker, for instance, she states that she was not aware of any complaints about intensification. She does, however, report that as a result of flexibility, there are complaints about job losses:

It’s going to make us ultimately lose positions. Now we’ve got, you know, everybody who can do this job, we don’t need to fill this position, because when they’re slow over here, they will just pull them over there. So, we don’t need to hire anybody anymore. That’s the biggest complaint I’ve heard from the union.

To which Vidal replies: “Okay. So, there hasn’t been—a very legitimate complaint too—but there hasn’t been any complaints about specifically an increase in work effort or anything like that”.54 Dismissed here, these concerns are not addressed in any part of the book.

Occasionally, managers speak openly to the reality of lean production. One such manager, talking about his own experiences, states:

Really what it came down to be is that we kept getting leaner just because we had to. Part of what happens as you cut back people…you’ve still got to get the same amount of work done, you get leaner because you find ways to keep your quality up, to keep your product going out the door. So, what happens…as every supervisor retired or production control retired …we didn’t replace them. So, we got it built in, you know (p299).

Again, this is accepted without reflection.

The routine politics of production

Vidal claims to have developed a “theory of the routine politics of production”.55 This term plays an important role because he argues that labour management conflict “was generally about competing visions of efficiency and contestation over changing workplace routines, not about control, autonomy or the pace of work”.56 The primary focus of managers is “making qualitative changes to routines in order to realise continuous improvement in productivity, flexibility and learning capability (quality), not with increasing effort levels as such (quantity)”.57 Despite the claimed benign intentions of managers, workers tended to contest the changes to their existing routines. Workers did not engage in this behaviour for rational or material interests, but rather, according to Vidal, contestation was “based on competing visions of efficiency, concerns for product quality and understandings of the proper division of labour between management and workers”.58 “Routines” in this context is shorthand for attachment to the practice of Fordism by workers who fail to see the benefits of cooperating with lean practices.

There are consistent references to the lack of enthusiasm among workers for the changes visited upon them. It is likely that in different contexts these feelings would be the wellspring of union organisation and, indeed, there was serious resistance to lean production in some unionised plants. In one, Vidal reports, “Much of the resistance is to cross-training and job rotation, a flashpoint issue in ongoing union negotiations in which management was attempting to reduce job classifications from over 50 to 7 flexible jobs”.59 Vidal acknowledges that the “very logic of a highly specialised division of labour, with clearly defined work roles and responsibilities has been enshrined in union contracts for decades as an attempt to safeguard against arbitrary and capricious management”.60 The continued salience of job control is, however, significantly underplayed.61 Vidal gives the impression that such defences are no longer needed because today’s managers can be taken at their word and that prime importance is placed on quality instead of rationalisation and cost cutting. In his view, the adherence to ideas of Fordist rationality, rather than class interests, motivates opposition to lean production, an argument again weakened by some of his own material. A manager at Custom Seats reflected on the “mindset” behind workers’ resistance to teamwork and job rotation. According to him, the experience of pieceworking has “created that same mindset”:

That there’s something uniquely complicated or difficult about that, that “I’m the only one who can do it”, and “this is our expert on this product, and this is our expert on that product”. When in fact…if we could divide the work, and we are as we create cells, you can get to the point where there isn’t as much dependence on the skill of the operator. It’s something that anybody can learn to do fairly quickly…and, following the work instructions and the procedures, can learn and will be rotating within an environment very fast.

They resent efforts that we’re making to, I’ll say commoditise it, but to break it up so that anybody can do it… And we’re going to teach them. You’re going to work together in a cell environment doing it together.62

All the binary oppositions between Taylorism and lean production, the labour process and valorisation, and reactionary workers and progressive management that run through Vidal’s analysis are dissolved by this above declaration and would be at the centre of a worker-focused analysis of lean. In the face of this clear intention to simplify work and deskill workers, Vidal attempts to present the company very differently: “In my reading of the Custom Seats case, management was genuinely offering real opportunities for substantive empowerment, including multi-skilling, problem solving and decision making”.63

Wages, terms and conditions

Vidal is not greatly concerned with the material circumstances of workers and how lean production might have impinged on them. In so far as any information arises, it does so incidentally and without any developed consideration. Certainly, there are no reports on how the efficiency of lean has resulted in monetary gains or shorter working weeks. Some of the information of actual wage movements and hours of work that does emerge is eye-opening and could be further evidence that lean production’s claim to promote work that is smarter rather than harder is empty propaganda.64 One respondent complained about working ten-hour shifts and Saturdays.65 Yet another, when asked about what she disliked about her job, replied:

I guess I’m not too thrilled about seven days a week. You know, I’d like to have a life too… I wish I’d get more money for one, and two, that I wouldn’t have to work seven days a week. [Laughs.] Other than that, I’m not too upset about anything else.66

Pay appeared to be a general concern, with one worker stating, ‘‘They don’t mind the cells, some workers are saying, but they’re not getting any more money, but they just added more work to them”.67 In Custom Seats, Vidal reports: “The main concern of the workers had to do with new payment and incentive systems, not with lean production as such. One issue was a recent switch from piece rates to an hourly wage. The second issue was an associated new gainsharing system”.68 One worker was switched from piece rates to an hourly rate:

He was averaging $27 per hour under piece rates and was concerned about a negative impact on productivity under the new hourly rate. Our production is way down because of this. Because who’s going to work for $17.55 an hour and be as productive as they were making piecework.69

The changes in payment systems are treated through Vidal’s book as if they had no relation to the introduction of lean and its accompanying flexibility and rotations. Vidal states that the workers whose piecework rates had been abolished “were extremely resentful and rightfully so, given their income loss.” He immediately suggests, however, that their real problem was something else, radically reinterpreting their motivations: “I want to show here that the source of their resentment was deeper, including their conviction that the new system was inefficient and would be harmful for the company”.70 Admitting that he did not have “quotes from these workers expressing conflicting views of efficiency” did not deter him as he was “able to include quotes here from workers at the remaining plants with overt resistance”.71 This admission further strengthens the impression of his intent to construct a strong case from weak theoretical and empirical bases.


It is possible to cite statements from the book suggesting that Vidal’s views are much more akin to “classical Marxist labour process theory”.72 For instance, he says at one point: “I do not mean that we can rely on enlightened management or that there is blame to be laid at the feet of conservative workers who think of work, labour and management in Fordist terms”.73 This is, nonetheless, exactly and overtly what he does, and fragmentary references to Marx are insufficient to counter his acceptance of the idea of efficiency under capitalist production being independent of rates of exploitation, his genuflection to management assessments and his marginalisation of labour. The contradictions are quite explicit. When discussing the relations between profits and efficiency he states, “The primary goal of capitalist production is profit. Efficiency is the means to make profit”.74 However, he continues, the profit motive can conflict with the “efficiency motive”, with the former often overriding the latter. This claim is illustrated through his contention that “‘bloody Taylorism’ can produce cheap goods or services, but it often entails sacrificing of product or service quality, injured workers and high turnover rates”, all of which raise “serious questions about the efficient use of resources”.75 This claim reflects the arguments of those imploring capital to take the high road using the rationale that they better understand the best interests of capital.76 However, damaging outcomes, whether to health or the environment, do not concern capital unless they impinge on profits.

Vidal does not consider himself a supporter of employers utilising lean to further exploit workers, instead maintaining that lean production can be positive. He has a twofold defence of his position. Firstly, there are different models of lean, and Vidal claims to be promoting a particular version that delivers world best practice by involving workers through training, participation and decision-making powers.77 This “variety of leans” approach allows some outcomes to be dismissed as merely a result of changes caused by employers misunderstanding the pure, developed model.78 Even if we entertain this approach, it is still disarming. When faced with managements implementing offensive changes and justifying them as lean, the most helpful approach is not workers and trade unions having discussions with managers about their failure to understand best practice lean production. Workers need to fight the proposals in front of them rather than having semantic disputes.

Vidal’s second, connected, defence is that this version of lean, in class terms, is a socially neutral set of techniques. Insofar as the pace of labour becomes more intense as it is implemented, Vidal blames competition, arguing that this dynamic preceded lean. These defences are naive and unsustainable. The “better” employers succeed by securing greater surplus value; lean is neither neutral nor an alternative, but rather a mechanism for translating competition into concrete practice. Lean is considered more effective in ensuring the accountability of every second within the workplace as the defences of labour are stripped away. There will be no waste through spare capacity, no scrappage, no buffers and no motion that is not devoted to adding value. In turn, other capitals will have to respond; the relative advantage enjoyed by first adopters of lean will not last, and relative labour costs will continue to be cut. In other words, Vidal’s argument is based on a moment: a snapshot of individual firms, divorced from long-term processes of crisis and restructuring.79

Vidal’s focus is short term and myopic, privileging the voice of management. Indeed, as previously noted, Vidal seems to share some managements’ frustrations with workers, stating as matter of fact, “Although lean is often contested by workers and trade unions, there is widespread agreement among senior managers, middle managers, engineers, industry associations and consultants that it constitutes best practice”.80 Relatively few workers are interviewed. Where workers’ concerted opposition is mentioned, it is always off stage. Referring to sustained resistance to cross-training and teamwork in two companies, Vidal comments:

Without meaning to cast any judgement, it seemed in both cases that an oppositional narrative was fuelling resistance on the shop floor.

The standard labour process interpretation would be to see this opposition as a righteous form of resistance to managerial attempts to maximise exploitation and control. Although such resistance may be well justified based on a lifetime of working for bad, incompetent or vindictive managers, the standard labour process interpretation is too crude. The managers I interviewed were interested in qualitatively improving their labour processes, not in maximising quantitative intensification or control.81

Not all managers are committed to seeing the systematic adoption of lean, but Vidal is keen to talk up the extent of take-up and to attribute resistance to a “culture of frustration and resentment” among workers:

My point is that their managers’ strategic focus is not on quantitative work intensification but on qualitative process improvement. Such an orientation is encouraged by post-Fordist demands for flexibility and continuous improvement…

More fundamentally, my findings suggests that the strategic orientation of management is more likely to be shaped by institutional logics of best practice in the field, due to the demands of their role as managers. By contrast, the strategic orientations of workers are more often (though by no means universally) rooted in local culture, custom and practice, where formerly dominant logics of best practise are resilient.82

There is certainly a case to be made that management is an organised global force; multinationals rotate managers throughout countries, business schools and consultants disseminate ideas, and so on. Moreover, many workers lack access to such organisational capacity and are thus “local”. Yet, Vidal’s formulation has disturbing echoes of one advanced by no other than Frederick Winslow Taylor, who claimed that, in order to succeed, scientific management (the best practice of the day) first required a mental revolution on the part of the worker.83

Of course, although some managers are convinced, others are conservative and, doubting the benefits of radical changes in production, prefer to make piecemeal modifications. These managers are frequently sceptical of outsiders. Vidal’s view is that “not bringing in consultants is a form of satisficing; all of the ‘lean as system’ factories in my sample brought in outside help, usually both industrial customers and consultants”.84 Although his interview programme with workers was relatively small and unfocused, other parts of his fieldwork were extensive. He interviewed 47 managers and engineers, spent tens of hours in meetings with manufacturing organisations and training partnerships, and undertook lean training. Vidal’s induction to the business world resulted in the following self-evaluation:

My prolonged engagement in the field facilitated extensive triangulation and “member checking”…allowing me to increasingly adopt the role of an expert and to talk shop with managers, engineers and workers, providing a built-in validity check on my emerging interpretations.85

The consequence of this approach is that Vidal ends up sounding very much like the consultants brought in to modernise management practices, but with the difference that he attempts to enlist labour as well:

Efficiency is the language of capitalists and their managers. Workers and their unions can use the language of efficiency, flexibility and learning to push managers towards the high involvement approach to lean.86

In so far as anyone takes the sampling of Marx within these pages seriously, it is a Marx for managers, as they are, for Vidal, the prime focus, the main harbingers of change and the principal subjects of history.87

Bob Carter was Professor of Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leicester. He is author of Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class (Routledge, 2015) as well as a number of articles on trade unions and the restructuring of public sector labour.


1 I am very grateful to Theo Nichols, Andy Danford and Paul Brook for making helpful comments on an early draft of this article. Of course, they are not responsible for any weaknesses that remain.

2 In practice, the adoption of lean production may be varied and uneven, leading to arguments about what constitutes a fully lean model.

3 Vidal, 2022a, pvii.

4 This approach was pioneered by Michel Aglietta—see Aglietta, 1976. For a systematic critique, see Brenner and Glick, 1991.

5 Vidal, 2022a, pviii.

6 Vidal, 2022a, p316.

7 Vidal, 2022a, ppviii and 9.

8 Vidal, 2022a, pviii.

9 Vidal, 2022a, p6.

10 Vidal, 2022a, p8.

11 Vidal, 2022a, p8.

12 Vidal, 2022a, p8. Vidal acknowledges that there has been intensification of labour over the past 30 years, but he insists that this is a general phenomenon that is independent of lean and caused by increased competition. Lean is conceived, in effect, as a neutral system that can be used positively or negatively to improve or worsen workers’ experience of labour.

13 Vidal appears to share some of management’s frustrations with workers when he notes that, despite lean frequently being challenged by workers and unions, “There is widespread agreement among senior managers, middle managers, engineers, industry associations and consultants that it constitutes best practice.”—Vidal, 2022a, p10. For the treatment of management’s opinions as fact and its consequences for analysis, see Nichols, 1986.

14 Vidal, 2022a, pviii.

15 See Parker and Slaughter, 1988; Carter, Danford and others, 2011; Stewart, Richardson and others, 2009.

16 Vidal, 2022a, p199.

17 Danford, 1998; Carter, Danford and others, 2011; Delbridge, 1998.

18 Delbridge, Turnball and Wilkinson, 1992, p97.

19 Danford, 1998, p62.

20 The following observations rely heavily on correspondence from Andy Danford.

21 Certainly, lean, as world-leading best practice, has made no positive, general impact on US wage rates: “Today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. What wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”—DeSilver, 2018.

22 Vidal, 2022a, p63.

23 Vidal, 2022a, p15.

24 Vidal, 2022a, p68. He does, however, suggest that “formerly dominant institutional logics of work organisation and valorisation continue to influence some managers and workers (and may have become taken for granted beliefs)”—Vidal, 2022a, p68.

25 Vidal, 2022a, p53. The critics are not specified and there is no reference to the most trenchant: Brenner and Glick, 1991, and Clarke, 1992.

26 Vidal, 2022a, p317.

27 See Marx, 1975.

28 Vidal, 2022a, p77.

29 This is in stark contrast to Marx’s view in which alienation is overcome in the class struggle against capitalism, not by cooperation and co-option. For a classical statement, see Lukács, 2017.

30 Vidal, 2022a, p37.

31 Vidal, 2022a, p317.

32 Vidal, 2022a, p37.

33 For a recent account of Marx’s development of the notion of alienation, see Musto, 2021. Brook, 2009, discusses the continued relevance of the concept to both work and wider social relations.

34 Braverman, 1974. For a recent, sympathetic but not uncritical account of Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, see Carter and Choonara, 2022.

35 Vidal, 2022a, pp10-11. Vidal at one point argues that rather than deskilling and degradation being the fate of workers under capitalism, Marx “posited a tendency toward the multi-skilling of labour”—Vidal, 2022a, p78.

36 Vidal, 2022a, p13.

37 Vidal, 2022a, p71.

38 Marx, 1976, p990.

39 Marx, 1976, p990.

40 Carchedi, 2012, pviii.

41 The distinction here has important implications for the class analysis of managers, something not attempted by Vidal. For the most concerted theoretical treatment of this theme, see Carchedi, 1977. For attempts to apply this perspective to restructuring of class relations within schools and British tax offices respectively, see Carter, Stevenson and Passy, 2010, and Carter, Danford and others, 2014.

42 Vidal, 2022a, p15.

43 See Carchedi, 2022, p15.

44 Vidal, 2022a, p212.

45 The time and motion studies developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, and subsequently by Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, were an integral part of the tools to increase productivity of labour. See Taylor, 2010; Gilbreth, 2008.

46 Vidal, 2022a, p115.

47 Vidal, 2022a, p147.

48 Vidal, 2022a, p148.

49 Vidal, 2022a, p148.

50 Vidal, 2022a, p157. Paul Brook notes a similar approach in the undermining of the Marxist conception of alienation in discussions of the commodification of workers’ emotional labour. According to this view, “Customer service interactions are double-edged in that they possess the potential to be subjectively satisfying as well as distressing for the worker.”—Brook, 2009, p8.

51 Vidal, 2022a, p165. A major criticism, not developed here, is the way in which the official trade union voice is regarded as reflecting the authentic interest of labour, as if there were no history of business unionism, trade union conservatism or collaboration with employers. Here is the self-evaluation of a union chairperson in a unionised firm who demonstrates a very clear detachment from the union members: “Well, for me, I mean I have awesome power on the floor, you know. I have been here for a while. You know, I mean I think I’ve earned the respect of top management, middle management, low management. They come out, they talk to me, they give me my data, and so on and so forth. As far as the guys on the floor, this is a different kind of place. You know, they still have this ‘I’m the worker, you’re management, you tell me what to do’ mentality.”—Vidal, 2022a, p181.
The contempt of one “business agent” (a full-time trade union official) for the membership of the union is even more starkly apparent: “Asked if the workers understand a need to adapt to keep up with their competition in order to save jobs, he stated, ‘I actually don’t think they have a clue. I mean they—that is to say, the average person on the floor—thinks, ‘This is my job. It’s going to be here forever. All I’ve got to do is come in when I feel like it, and that’s it.’’”—Vidal, 2022a, p228. Again, this is accepted by Vidal without response.

52 Vidal, 2022a, p195. Emphasis in original.

53 Vidal, 2022a, p197.

54 Vidal, 2022a, p167.

55 This is also the title of a recent article, see Vidal, 2022b.

56 Vidal, 2022a, pvii.

57 Vidal, 2022a, p36.

58 Vidal, 2022a, p89.

59 Vidal, 2022a, p205.

60 Vidal, 2022a, p91.

61 Vidal underestimates the continued importance of these factors. In Britain, custom and practice traditionally established norms in workplaces, norms that frequently either diverged from formal agreements or established practices in spaces not covered by any written agreement. In either case, custom and practice provided a barrier to arbitrary changes by management and, should issues be taken to industrial tribunals, custom and practice was recognised as an unwritten part of the contract of employment between employer and employee. Vidal is a world away from Carter Goodrich’s understanding of day to day workplace-based class conflict—see Goodrich, 1975.

62 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

63 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

64 The promise of technological progress and smarter working has a long history. Writing in the 1970s, Theo Nichols and Huw Beynon’s study of ICI’s chemical factory contained one worker’s evaluation of such claims: “You move from one boring, dirty, monotonous job to another boring, dirty, monotonous job. And then to another boring, dirty, monotonous job. And somehow you’re supposed to come out of it all ‘enriched’. But I never feel ‘enriched’—I just feel knackered.”—Nichols and Beynon, 1977, p16.

65 Vidal, 2022a, p302.

66 Vidal, 2022a, p187.

67 Vidal, 2022a, p175.

68 Vidal, 2022a, p178

69 Vidal, 2022a, p178.

70 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

71 Vidal, 2022a, p223.

72 This is certainly his claim in a recent defence of his views—see Vidal, 2022b, p65.

73 Vidal, 2022a, p322.

74 Vidal, 2022a, p11.

75 Vidal, 2022a, p12.

76 In this vein, the “scenario in the advanced economies is the quest for comparative advantage against developing economies by becoming highly skilled economies driven by knowledge and creativity”—Carré, Findlay and others, 2012, p3.

77 It is worth reiterating that Vidal self-admittedly has no evidence for this, as I have noted above.

78 Sociologist Simon Clarke had an instructive response to the same argument as it was applied to Fordism: “It may be that all the different institutional variants of Fordism that can be observed from one period to another and from one country to another represent more or less successful, and more or less complete, attempts to realise the One True Fordism. In that case Fordism would constitute the ‘ideal-type’, the Fordist utopia, as attested by the most sophisticated sociologists, while the world would be littered with its deformed offspring: blocked Fordism, peripheral Fordism, global Fordism, flawed Fordism.”—Clarke, 1992, p27.

79 In 2003, in the face of the unprecedented threat of teachers’ strikes in England and Wales over workloads, the government held out the promise of transferring 22 tasks frequently performed by teachers to teaching assistants and other support workers. All unions, with the exception of the National Union of Teachers, signed the “workforce remodelling agreement”, and the threat of industrial action receded. Teachers’ roles were tied much closer to classroom teaching and their level of accountability was raised, resulting in intensification of their work and increasing stress levels and workloads. There is no reason to believe that capital will not take advantage of the changes associated with lean in the same way. See Carter, Stevenson and Passy, 2010.

80 Vidal, 2022a, p10.

81 Vidal, 2022a, p201.

82 Vidal, 2022a, p233.

83 I am grateful to Theo Nichols for this insight.

84 Vidal, 2022a, p256.

85 Vidal, 2022a, p105.

86 Vidal, 2022a, p326.

87 “A Marx for Managers” is the title of Hans Gerth and C Wright Mills’s critique of James Burnham, which responded to Burnham’s contention that “what is happening in the world will eventuate neither in socialism nor in capitalism; rather, through revolutions and wars, we move toward ‘a managerial society’.”— Gerth and Mills, 1942, p201. There is no suggestion that Vidal’s perspectives are as grand as Burnham’s.


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