Lean ManufacturingThe Dark Side of Lean

War, Oil and Lean Production

By Jon Miller Updated on May 15th, 2017

Each day this week we will examine aspects of The Dark Side of Lean. Today’s theme is “War, Oil and Lean Production” – admittedly an extreme Left perspective based on Marxist thought and the examination of a murder-suicide at a Jeep factory in January 2005.
Why should we spend any time reading extreme opinions which we disagree with? Because I believe that kaizen is truly a good thing both for individuals, organizations and society as a whole, and I want to understand what misconceptions exist and how they come about.
An online dialogue in political newsletter Counter Punch titled Blood on the Upholstery of Jeep Liberty between Marxist activist Manuel Yang and author and University of Toledo lecturer Peter Linebaugh discusses the murder-suicide at the DaimlerChrysler Stickney Avenue plant in Toledo, Ohio on Wednesday January 26, 2005. A 54 year old worker and 31-year veteran Myles Meyers came to work on second shift with a double-barreled shotgun, shot several others and himself. Mr. Yang and Mr. Linebaugh place the blame squarely on Lean production.
The official Jeep version of the story in the media was of Mr. Meyers who “recently faced disciplinary action by the company because he reportedly argued with a supervisor” as motivation. Mr. Yang cites a fellow worker at Jeep as saying “the bosses Myles shot were those who carried out Daimler-Chrysler’s policy of eliminating jobs by headcounts.”
According to the article Jeep management harassed Mr. Meyers. “In addition, Management moved him from job to job taking his equipment and continually humiliating him by putting up degrading signs and pictures around his workplace to show him how to do his job.”
One lesson here is that what may appear to a believer in Lean manufacturing as a completely reasonable and benign practice of visual controls, standard work, and job rotation to promote multi-process handling can be humiliating to a veteran worker. Combined with an antagonistic management-labor relationship and a stated policy of eliminating jobs, and the result is a deadly incident and the dark side of Lean.
Mr. Yang makes a leap from this incident to World War II Germany by saying “Daimler-Benz’s use of death and terror in its labor camps had critical elements of continuity with what was going in Daimler-Chrysler’s Jeep plant in Toledo” and follows with some horrific descriptions of a V-2 factory which I will not repeat here.
Lean production is synonymous with outsourcing and headcount reduction in the minds of the labor union organizer that is cited in this article as saying “lean production led to this working-class killing and suicide” while a Jeep worker called the war in Iraq “a lean production war” because of the U.S. military use of subcontracted torturers.
Comparisons are extended between the evils of Lean production ‘at home’ quoting another Jeep worker “Lean production is to work longer, harder, faster, for less” and ‘Lean warfare in Iraq’ as “outsourcing, private mercenaries, private contractors to help with the torture, logistics and laundry and food preparation privatized, shoddy equipment, jerry-built vehicles, the poverty-draft, stinting on safety.”
Mr. Yang quotes a worker at Jeep who associates the Lean production terminology used at Jeep “They’re calling the teams ‘cells’….It suggests working in a prison environment…To a lot of people, working in a factory can be pretty drudgerous. You wake up in the morning, you do your job, and you go home. It’s like being in prison. In some of the areas where we work, there are no windows, you don’t see the outside, there is very little time to get away from your work, so they think of it in terms of being in a prison”
It was my understanding that the concept of cellular manufacturing and work cells came from the biological concept of a cell. A cell is a functioning unit of life based on a grouping of organelles . Cells perform biological functions. A production cell is a group of processes and a basic functioning unit of production. This does not reduce the validity of this worker’s observation of the failure of Lean production to make work at the Jeep factory any less prison-like.
Mr. Yang makes the connection between the origin of Lean production in Japan and Japan’s entry into World War II to secure natural resources such as oil:
“War, oil, and lean production. I believe there is a certain historical logic in this unholy trinity of accumulation. What prompted Japan to enter into World War II was the oil and raw-material embargo that competing Western imperialist countries imposed on Japan in the 1930s.”
Mr. Yang points out that Japanese industry effectively pacified the labor movement in post-war Japan. No doubt this enabled Lean production to be implemented more rapidly and smoothly than it ever could have been for example, at a Detroit automobile UAW workforce in the 1950s to 1970s. This is something the prevailing pro-Lean literature rarely touches upon, and he official Toyota PR certainly never advertises.
Mr. Yang describes the 7 wastes of production Lean production and points out that reduction of waste “requires squeezing as much mental and physical powers from the workers’ labor process as it is possible to densely pack their working time.”
These are the 7 wastes as he describes them, accurately:
1) waste of overproduction;
2) waste of time on hand (waiting);
3) waste in transportation;
4) waste of processing itself;
5) waste of stock on hand (inventory);
6) waste of movement; and
7) waste of making defective products.

He continues:
“Namely, the imposition of faster, harder, more concentrated work. I believe Iraq and Jeep are a continuation of such a lean production strategy against the working class through the bloody and fiery circuits of war, oil, and terror.”
He fails to point out that value is defined by the customer, or the market, and not by the either the members of the labor class or the ruling class who control the capital. Surely members of the labor class, as consumers, do not want to pay for the 7 wastes, so they should not be paid for them. Making defects, for example, should be universally recognized as wasteful regardless of political or class leanings.
After a discussion of depression, suicide and murder at Toyota (more on this later this week) and within a Lean production environment from a Marxist perspective and the need for class solidarity, Mr. Linebaugh observes:
“What happed at Jeep yesterday represents a vast institutional failure. The plant has failed, the government has failed, the union has failed. The plant has installed lean production.”
It is hard to disagree with the first two sentences. It can not agree with the third sentence.
Mr. Linebaugh expands on these concerns in an article in Counter Punch on October 29, 2005.
“On the one hand, increasing ignorance as schools close, more criminality as police and prisons expand, greater insecurity for children and dangers of violence at home, and prospects of war; then on the other hand, mandatory overtime in the plants, destruction of union contracts providing health benefits for the golden years, privatization by sub-contracting, insecurity by employing temporary workers, and speed-up driving some people to death. All this is called “lean production.”
Mr. Linebaugh continues, “Lean production drives some workers mad. Some are beginning to kill” and cites death due to industrial accidents, the “grudge violence” at the Toledo Jeep plan, an example of suicidal road violence and another of a domestic violence killing.
Yet he makes no attempt to link these things directly to Lean production that a Lean production implementer and proponent would recognize, other than in the wider context of class struggle. Regardless, the fact that Lean production is susceptible to misuse by some, to misinterpretation by those on the Left, or that companies claiming to be Lean are incapable of contributing more positively to the lives of people working within a Lean workplace is enough of a concern to merit attention.
The dialogue between Mr. Yang and Mr. Linebaugh on the murder-suicide concludes with a call to action:
“The city of Toledo, the State of Ohio, needs to take responsibility for lean production and abolish it! It has proved itself dysfunctional. That’s just a start.”
The vast majority of popular literature on Lean manufacturing available in English is positive and promotional of Lean manufacturing. People do not buy management books in order to read a full and balanced study of the positives and negatives of an issue. People buy management books because of the words on the cover such as “Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation” promise clear, simple and polar messages free of nuance and subtleties requiring careful reflection.
The people who write tracts, articles and books and the dark side of Lean production also are not aiming to present a balanced view of the pros and cons. They are taking an opposing viewpoint to the positive Lean production books. This can result in the negative views appearing to be extreme or one-sided.
These views on the dark side of Lean should not be discredited simply because they seem extreme or because they represent the polar opposite political viewpoint of your own. Only by examining as many sides of the argument as possible and acting on the best available information can we hope to implement a system that I believe engages the workforce, satisfies customers and generates free cash flow successfully – Lean production.
Tomorrow: Human Kanban

  1. Davod Ebrahimi

    May 11, 2006 - 3:05 am

    i think what happened in Jeep factory was one side of what you was writing weeks ago: IE vs. HR. cited as you wrote, implementing the IE side of Lean manufacturing without seeing the HR side is absolutely wrong. i agree with you and i think we should sit at home and do nothing except doing something half.
    i have seen this problem in Iran too. i tried to move just ONE machine but workers didn’t let me do it. i was confused, but afterward i tried to work on HR and IE in parallel. it was quite better! i feel Jeep manager and their Lean consultants has not worked on HR. working in a closed enviroment without anything interesting is out of all of HR management rules. if you make Taiichi Ohno work in such a place absolutely he would kill you and himself also!


    December 25, 2006 - 2:18 am


  3. Anonymous

    April 12, 2007 - 8:51 pm


  4. George Impink

    August 14, 2008 - 3:23 pm

    Since I implemented Lean manufacturing in my factory three years ago, my worker morale has gone way up, they are less tired, they don’t complain and, since we are making considerably more profit because our costs are way down, they get good raises and good bonuses of “real money” instead of a thank you and a turkey. They have job security since they know we are now far more competitive and growing.
    Why the left in this country is against Lean Manufacturing makes no sense at all to me. I think it is as much of a benefit to the workers as it is to management and owners, maybe more. Unless their real agenda is that they just want to see America fail.
    Attention left-wing “half-glassers” if you pay attention to the numbers instead of your negative victim emotions you’ll see manufacturing is returning to America and the worker pay is going up. Lean is the secret and you all ought to open your eyes. This stuff is magical.

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