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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, August 28, 2006

Liberation Management, or Management by Stress?

"Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof...."

From my first reading of Tom Peters' work, my overwhelming impression was of the ambivalent or dialectical character of the "revolutionary" management and organizational trends he championed. Depending on the system of power into which such ideas are incorporated, they could make life either heaven or hell for those doing the actual work.

The same generalization applies to many other organizational and management theory trends (reengineering, lean production, kaizen, and the like), all of which celebrate the dissolution of corporate hierarchies and the organization of production along decentralized, consumer-driven, and (allegedly) bottom-up lines. And indeed, a lot of it sounds like what might be the seeds of a libertarian, self-managed, decentralized economy, if the structural bulwarks to authoritarianism were removed. The same practices, however, when integrated into the existing system of state capitalism, become what Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter [Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering (Detroit: Labor Notes, 1994)] call "management-by-stress."

The striking thing is that ideas like demand-pull, self-directed teams, and flexible manufacturing are discussed both by corporate management gurus like Peters, and by left-wing economic decentralists, in language that is virtually indistinguishable from one group to the other. The demand-pull concept, for example, was anticipated at least as early as Barry Stein's Size, Efficiency, and Community Enterprise. The difference is that Peters considers such ideas (despite his revolutionary rhetoric) largely in terms of their integration into the existing corporate economy, while the left-wingers imagine a post-corporate economy of producer and consumer cooperatives built around the new practices.

Reading Peters brought another, seemingly obvious, question to mind. In his work of the late '80s and early '90s, he wrote of the dissolution of corporate walls, the elimination of middle management, and the rise of worker self-management as inevitable revolutionary trends that the Fortune 500 would inevitably adopt or die. If the large corporation were not revolutionized along such lines, he wrote, it would go the way of Gosplan. Yet, fifteen or twenty years later, the corporate dinosaur is still thrashing quite vigorously in those alleged tarpits, with no sign of going under. Why didn't the old hierarchical corporation disintegrate to anywhere near the extent Peters predicted, and why isn't the flattened network of self-directed teams anwhere near as prevalent?

One partial answer is that Peters greatly exaggerated the competitive disadvantages of inefficiency in a cartelized, state capitalist market, and underestimated the inertia of the existing system. When three-quarters of a market is dominated by a handful of corporate "Gosplans" that share the same pathological organizational culture and follow the same "industry trends," Gosplan can be pretty profitable.

But another part of the answer may be that the stuff Peters talked about actually was adopted to a large extent; it's just that the contrast between the new and old ways of doing things wasn't nearly as great as he imagined, and that what's called the "self-directed team" can be integrated quite nicely into the old hierarchy without anywhere near the revolutionary upheaval he expected.

Peters himself made it clear that he wasn't opposed to bigness, as such; he just wanted to simulate the advantages of smallness in the context of a large corporation. And he also made it clear that his prescriptions for eliminating middle management, transforming the corporation into a loose network of self-directed teams, and "outsourcing everything" would take place within a mercantilist framework of corporate headquarters that retained central control of "intellectual property," branding, and finance, as well as the price-setting power that comes from coordinated buying and selling. Nike has taken the principle to its logical conclusion, outsourcing all the production to an archipelago of "independent" sweatshops, while retaining control of corporate finance and legal possession of the Nike brand-name. It's pretty hard to miss the fact that the world in which Peters saw his ideas being implemented was a world built by Tom Friedman, upheld not by the invisible hand but by the fist of the World Bank, IMF and WTO, and the U.S. armed forces.

For the left-wing economic decentralists, on the other hand, such ideas are expected to reach their full flourishing only when intellectual property, centralized finance, and corporate headquarters themselves have gone the way of T. Rex. In other words, they will become the basis of economic organization in an economy centered on decentralized production for local markets, with production organized predominantly through consumer or producer cooperatives. Peters' prescription, as it is actually being implemented, is a way to integrate the Goths into the framework of the old Roman imperial structure and give the Empire a new lease on life.

All these management trends of flexibility, decentralization, flattening of hierarchies, and related ideas, examplify what might be the seeds of a new libertarian economic system along the lines that Kirkpatrick Sale described in the economic chapters of Human Scale. But adapted to the existing corporate economy, they are more accurately described by Parker and Slaughter in Working Smart.

Many of the stated principles, as such, might be good, if they were applied by workers for themselves, in an economy of worker cooperatives. But when they are done to workers by management, they become management-by-stress.

Indeed management theory gurus, in describing kaizen, lean manufacturing, etc., use rhetoric of empowerment reminiscent of left-wing literature on worker self-management. An especially egregious example is Tom Peters. But in practice, in the corporate capitalist workplace, they translate into relentless downsizing and speedups, and a nightmare of overwork and job insecurity. As Parker and Slaughter describe it, these fashionable management practices can be broken down into several key components (they focus especially on the NUMMI joint-venture of Toyota and GM).

The first is the speedup. Lean production systematically isolates and removes all the buffers against bottlenecks, like stockpiled parts or extra workers to fill in for absentees. The system is deliberately stressed to identify not only the weak parts, but those that are too strong.

A good example is the use of the "andon board," representing every work station. The green light means the station is keeping up. Yellow means it is falling behind. Red is a problem that requires stopping the line. Under management-by-stress, all green is not good. The idea is to stress the system, removing staffing and other resources from green areas, until a satisfactory number of yellow lights indicates that the system is operating near its absolute limits. [pp. 24-28]

A second key aspect of management-by-stress is the just-in-time, or demand-pull approach to production. This is another idea that, if developed in the directions described by left-wing decentralists like Barry Stein, Dave Pollard, and Michel Bauwens, would be a good thing. But adapted to the capitalist workplace, the dark side of its dialectical nature is revealed. The idea is to reduce inventories of finished and unfinished goods to an absolute minimum. The lack of a cushion helps to stress the system, pressuring those in weak spots to superhuman efforts to catch up. Those causing bottlenecks are isolated and identified, and subjected to hellish pressure. [pp. 25-27] The peer pressure to avoid stopping the line and attracting unwanted attention from one's coworkers or supervisor is so intense that some workers, who have trouble keeping up, will come in early or use breaks to build stocks to avoid falling in the hole. [p. 29]

The removal of staffing buffers also results in peer pressure for keeping up and against absenteeism. The worker who cannot keep up with the pace of the sped-up line creates more work and stress for those down the line. And since the work group is just barely large enough to handle its work load, there is absolutely no margin for absenteeism. The team passes on its collective stress to the recalcitrant worker. The pressure is overwhelming to work through all but the most incapacitating illnesses. [p. 29] This is reminiscent, albeit to a lesser degree, of the colorful stories veterans tell about the practice of collective punishment in the military, and the "blanket parties" organized for the individuals who made a unit suffer.

In short, the system is not bufferless at all. The workers themselves are the buffers, at little or no cost to the company. [p. 69]

Glitches are inevitable, anywhere. Could a system that really had no buffers to deal with these glitches be as productive as this system is? Lean production does remove or sharply curtail those buffers that add significant cost--a stock of work-in-progress, back-up machinery, extra workers, or spare time--but it replaces these with an alternative. The real buffers in bufferless production are the workers, who are expected to put out extra effort to maintain production despite the unavoidable glitches.

If the just-in-time system makes a part shipment late and the team leader has to run to get it, that's the job. If overtime is required and workers have to forego personal plans, that's the job too. Using workers as the shock absorbers of the system costs management little (except for workers compensation claims), but it can be very unhealthy for the human element. [p. 80]

If you ever had any doubt that the term "human resources" reflects a conscious agenda, this should dispell it. They view us as another resource to be used until it falls apart, and then replaced. And Fish! Philosophy is another way to deal with problems of exhaustion and shattered morale on the cheap: to get a little more out of us before they have to replace us, without having to give us anything extra in return.

A third aspect of management-by-stress is what Parker and Slaughter call "super-Taylorism," with workers pressured to time-study themselves. [p. 27] This is what the Japanese call kaizen, or continuous improvement. Although the theory stresses the empowerment of workers who are involved in the improvement process, the only real creative role for workers is in figuring out how to get more work out of less staff; the new work process, once worker input is incorporated into it, itself becomes inflexible. The basic idea is Taylor's: identify one "best practice" and then make everyone follow it without deviation. The "super-" modifier reflects the fact that management actually saves money on time-and-motion peckerheads with clipboards, instead paying hourly wage workers to think up ways to screw themselves.

And make no mistake: kaizen always means reducing staffing, not individual effort. It's a way to get more work out of fewer people. The object is to reduce man-hours enough to eliminate an entire person. As Parker and Slaughter say, "Reducing effort is not the issue, reducing jobs is.

The original Japanese inventors of all these fads were under no illusions about "worker empowerment." For all of the American management gurus' glibness about the "end of Taylorism," so effectively lampooned by Thomas Frank, the Japanese saw their techniques as the fullfillment of Taylorism, not its negation:

The original theoreticians of the Japanese production system, such as [Yasuhiro] Monden and Taichi Ohno, saw their notion of standardized work as building on the ideas of Frederick Taylor's scientific management and Henry Ford's assembly line.... Those who implemented the production system in North America were explicit that they were following in the Taylorist tradition....

Further, a central tenet underlying all the well-known quality programs, from Deming's to Crosby's, is that quality is achieved by removing variation from the process.... This in turn requires breaking jobs down to their elemental tasks, carrying out precisely defined steps and management instructs, and extremely tight process control--i.e., Taylorism.

The difference is that the collection of worker knowledge is ongoing, through kaizen, rather than a one-time event as envisioned by Taylor in setting up the system. And workers time-study each other, instead of time-study by engineers. In other words, it is democratic, participatory Taylorism. The outcome suggestions is increased management control. [p. 76] Another possible way of putting it is "Theory Y" Taylorism, or "Theory X ends by Theory Y means."

The team concept, in practice, is far less democratic and bottom-up than Peters pictures it:

In the actual operation of the plant--as opposed to the ideological hype--the main significance of teams is that they are simply the name management gives to administrative units. For the most part, if we substituted "supervisor's sub-group" for team..., understanding of management-by-stress would not suffer at all.

There is, however, some reality to the widespread notions about teams. Some teams meet and discuss real problems. When the lines move slowly enough, workers can and do help each other out. But this is most likely during initial start-up, when the "teams" often consist mainly of supervisors, engineers, and team leaders. Once the line is up to speed, jobs are specified in detail and each worker can barely keep up with his or her own job, let alone help someone else out....

When the system is running at regular production speed, team meetings tend to drop in frequency.... In other cases, team meetings are nothing more than shape-up sessions where quality or overtime information is transmitted to the workers or a supervisor announces changes in assignments.

When management taoks to itself about what makes the system work, teams, in the sense of teamwork or team meetings, are rarely mentioned. In his description of Toyota, considered the reference by many NUMMI managers, Yasuhiro Monden does not use the term "team" at all. He does describe the mandatory Quality Control Circles made up of "a foreman and his subordinate workers." In the entire 230-page book explaining the production system, discussion of these circles totals seven pages, and much of this discussion covers the suggestion system and its rewards.

Similarly, John Krofcik, an MIT researcher and a former quality control engineer at NUMMI, lists teams as one of the reasons for NUMMI's success. But in describing them, Krafcik discusses only the supervisory duties of team leaders... and the peer pressure against absenteeism, not any supposed team powers or problem-solving functions. [p. 35]

And even when the teams are fully functioning as in theory, their decision-making domain is heavily circumscribed:

NUMMI management tries to guide its Problem Solving Circles by placing boundaries on what the circles may address. Included in the untouchables list are: Company Operating Principles, Human Resources Policy and Rules, Supplier Selection, New Model Design, Sales and Marketing Policies. The message is that creativity means finding ways to meet targets established by management [emphasis added]....

If workers may not address those areas--the ones that would actually give them some say over what happens in and to the company--what's left of workers' power? Well, the Problem Solving Circles have the power to kaizen. If "company operating principles"--i.e., leanness--are off limits, how are circles to address problems of workload or understaffing? [pp. 70, 77]

The answer, clearly is that they are not.

So why does the reality described above differ so sharply from the gushing, quasi-syndicalist rhetoric of management theory gurus like Peters? Two words: "Potemkin village." Or maybe three, if you throw in "dupe."

This chapter points to an unlovely picture of life in a management-by-stress plant. It contradicts most of what is said in the glowing accounts of the team concept in the popular media. Where do these accounts come from?

Many stories about how workers feel about life in management-by-stress plants are based on reports of company officials, union officers, or consultants who have some vested interest in the programs' being declared a success. Some very positive descriptions are based on interviews at the time the plant was starting up. As we have described earlier, the conditions, the role of teams and teamwork during the start-up period are transformed by the time the lines reach full production speed. Some reports are based on testimony by workers specially selected by the company to meet reporters. The distortions are then compounded by authors who know little about what life is like in a factory. [p. 37]

So overall, the lesson seems to be that a revolutionary change really did take place in the '90s and the first years of the 21st century. Seen in terms of Peters' liberatory rhetoric, the team concept has meant little practical change. But seen in terms of "management-by-stress," a great deal of change--mostly for the worse--has occurred. Radically downsized workforces have been pushed to their limits, with greatly increased stress and turnover and diminished morale. Although Peters' rhetoric, taken at face value, sounds like something out of Kropotkin or Kirkpatrick Sale, implemented within the framework of a corporate economy it is in practice a system for tightening management control.

But this is not to say that these fashionable management theories are inherently worthless. Just reading Peters' work by itself (especially Thriving on Chaos), without considering the utterly evil institutional environment in which his ideas have been adapted, is almost as exilirating a read as Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops. As with Kropotkin, many of the ideas he discusses sound like the seeds of a possible libertarian economy, if they were adapted to an overall structure of cooperative ownership and decentralized production for local markets.

And as I've already pointed out, many theorists of the alternative economy have adapted the same ideas to genuinely libertarian structural conditions. Even Parker and Slaughter concede some value to the ideas themselves, if workers had more control over how they were adopted in practice. For example, lean production could be designed to achieve genuine efficiencies without unduly stressful conditions; one possible adaptation would be to supplement the lean, just-in-time model with or flying squads to help work stations with problems, or with a small floating pool of extras to fill in for absentees.

Another example of how the same concepts might be applied differently, if used to empower workers instead of bosses, is kaizen. Instead of (as we saw above) kaizen being used to eliminate jobs rather than reduce the effort required, it might be used for the reverse: as a way for workers to make their own jobs easier. It would be a case of "labor-saving technology," for once, living up to its name.

In a decentralized, cooperative market economy, the built-in conflict of interest currently involved in "process improvement" would disappear. With management representing those doing the work, instead of those trying to get more out of them, most of the so-called "agency dilemma" would be straightened out as cleanly as the Gordian knot. "Change" would cease to be something imposed from above, by those with fundamentally different interests, and would instead consist of decisions made by workers concerning their own work.

Depending on whose power framework these ideas are incorporated into, the resulting world can be either as hideous as an iron-heeled cyberpunk dystopia (Stephen King's The Running Man and Marge Piercy's He, She, and It are pretty effective extrapolations of the kind of world our corporate technofascist overlords are trying to build for us), or as humanly appealing as the 21st century England of William Morris. Either "all will be well, and all manner of things will be well," or the future will be a boot stamping on a human face forever. Or maybe we'll just muddle through somewhere in between, with them trying to enslave us but not quite getting off with everything they want.

But I don't think our corporate masters can keep their grip on the world, and I don't think they can even just muddle through for many more decades. Their state-subsidized economy is generating costs faster than they can externalize them on the rest of us, and it's headed for the breaking point: Peak Oil, the debt crisis, overbuilt highway structure crumbling several times faster than money can be appropriated to repair it, soil driven to collapse by chemical agribusiness, etc. To borrow Stavrianos striking imagery from The Promise of the Coming Dark Age, the seeds of a genuinely new economy are waiting to sprout up through the cracks in the ruins of state capitalism. And when it happens, rather than new wine being poured into old bottles, we'll be using the new ideas as the fundamental organizing principles of a new economy--not to keep the old one on life support.


Blogger Presto said...

Exellent essay, Kevin. I worked in the quality control/assurance field for 15+ years, and the difference between the stated principles of Deming, Peters, etc. and their application in the corporate world drove me from the field.

I find that so-called 'worker empowerment' in practice translates into making a worker responsible for failures, without giving him/her any real power to fix the problem.

Modern management's goal is to squeeze the last drop of blood out of a company's quarterly numbers, while fooling customers and investors about the actual long-term health of the company. If it kills the company in the long term, so be it. The golden parachute awaits senior management, and employees pay the price. Such a system is unsustainable, and we must be prepared to take advantage of the situation to "build the new within the shell of the old."

August 28, 2006 10:15 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, Presto. As far as I'm concerned, your description of the functioning of management is gospel.

On the misuse of Deming and Crosby, et al, a friend of mine who got a masters in industrial engineering had exactly the same impression of the average corporate management's dumbing down of Kwality. At The Unmentionable Place, I looked (just for fun) into a Quality Improvement binder with inserts going back to the mid-90s, and was astonished by the geological cross-section of fossilized, abandoned management theory fads. Most recent have been ISO-9000 and apparently Six-Sigma, a couple of Deming knockoffs. What's really funny is to see all the "Plan, Do, Check, Act" jargon in their posters, and the charts of adverse events over time. At the same time, though, there are all sorts of "slogans and exhortations," "revival meetings," and the like (all big Deming no-nos), to get people to minimize adverse events by working harder and doing all the safety stuff they don't have time to do because of deliberate understaffing. Never heard of the glass bead experiment, I guess.

August 28, 2006 10:37 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

ISO-9000 {shudder}. It was my job to implement ISO9001-2000 at my last QA job. I actually wanted to implement the ideas behind the system, and not just fake up the documents to get the registration. My mistake. Sometime I will blog about the ridiculousness of the whole ISO9000 system.

August 28, 2006 11:03 PM  
Blogger Adem D. Kupi said...

In an open market, supply expands to meet increased demand.
In a constricted market, demand merely bids up the price of supply.

This is how all this happens. The owners of capital artificially restrict the supply of capital.
Therefore, as the market becomes more and more efficient, instead of making everything more distributed, it just puts more stress on labor.

"And make no mistake: kaizen always means reducing staffing, not individual effort. It's a way to get more work out of fewer people. The object is to reduce man-hours enough to eliminate an entire person. As Parker and Slaughter say, "Reducing effort is not the issue, reducing jobs is.""
That's the telling part. There's no extra capital to absorb the increased productivity.

August 29, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger Jesse said...

You've devoted a lot of space here to demonstrating empirically that teams etc. can be nasty in a corporatist context. You haven't put much empirical effort into demonstrating that they wouldn't be nasty in a post-corporate context. Now, I suppose it might be a bit much to ask you to offer empirical arguments about an economy that doesn't exist, but neither "the existing system of state capitalism" nor "a post-corporate economy" are static, absolute categories. There are degrees of statism, and there are also degrees of nastiness.

Are humane forms of self-management more likely to flourish in relatively laissez-faire environments, or in environments where the government makes an effort to nurture workplace democracy? Are all Petersist corporations hellholes, or are some more livable than others? Is there a direct cause and effect relationship here, or a more subtle interplay of forces?

My bias here is libertarian, but I don't have the answers. I will note that Mondragon (according to a piece I read in, I think, Any Time Now) now has more non co-op members among its employees than members, thanks not to a new dose of statism but to a new dose of the international marketplace. On the other hand, the flexible manufacturing networks of Italy -- which impress me far more than Mondragon -- grew out of a flat-out corporate capitalist effort to save money, and were initially criticized by many leftists as yet another species of exploitative piecework. On yet another hand, the FMNs were also encouraged by left-wing local governments when they saw what was going on.

Finally: Stavrianos reminds me a bit of those business writers visiting corporate Potemkin villages. Check out his praise for Mao's Cultural Revolution, or worse yet, for Pol Pot's "evacuation" of Phnom Penh.

August 29, 2006 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This looks like a an example of a more general trend within monopoly capitalism to force as many externalities and as much risk as possible away from capital and onto labour. When you talk about "management by stress" and the "andon board" I can't help but think about Katrina and the huge North Eastern power outage which were both caused by cutting back the capital buffering to near-zero in the confident knowledge that none of the ruling class would have to suffer the consequences.


August 29, 2006 12:45 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Your analysis of capital scarcity sounds almost exactly like a Georgist analysis of land. But that's just the point--the banking monopoly creates, artificially, the same scarcity of capital that exists naturally in regard to building sites.


I'm not sure whether the northeastern power failure was a feature for the ruling class, but it certainly illustrates the vulnerability of "lean" and "just in time" systems to even mild disruption. Indeed, as Parker and Slaughter have pointed out in other places, the vulnerability of the supply chain to such disruption is a tactical goldmine for organized labor--one that organized labor has used increasingly in recent years, with strikes aimed primarily at disrupting production far beyond the portion of members actually involved in them. What this brings to mind for me is the Wobblies' practice of unannounced one-day strikes at random intervals. Likewise, transport strikes can be more disruptive than ever--which makes it likely that such efforts will also be more subject to fascist clampdown than ever under Taft-Hartley, the Railroad Labor Relations Act, etc.

August 30, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I arguably devoted less attention than I should have to what a mixed bag the application of management theory fads are within "Petersist corporations." It's probably true that some of them have genuinely ameliorative effects from a working class perspective, when they promote common ends of workers and stockholders at the expense of managerialism. Alex Kjerulf certainly discusses a lot of such experiments in a positive light at his Chief Happiness Officer blog.

I should clarify that in discussing the "post-corporate" application of these ideas, I'm assuming that a free market without subsidies to centralization and capital intensiveness would result in the kinds of small-scale production envisioned by Bookchin and Sale, and that cooperative models of ownership or self-employment will be much more predominant.

And in assuming that the application of such ideas will be more libertarian and worker-friendly in a post-corporate world than in the present, I'm implicitly assuming that any technology or technique can be adapted to libertarian or authoritarian ends, depending on the identity of those with the power to adopt it. So the same technique, adopted by worker-owners in their own interests, will be fundamentally different in practice than when it is adopted by management seeking to get the most output out of others. For management, which sees wages as a cost rather than as the point of the enterprise (as would be the case in a producers' co-op), there's a fundamental conflict of interest.

I generally share your view of Mondragon, but the structural imperatives that have made for "demutualization" come not just from a global market, but from a state capitalist global market. The fact that it is a giant (if decentralized and federal) firm producing for a neoliberal global market, is a huge distorting factor that wouldn't exist if the structural bulwarks to globalism were gone. I don't know enough about the structural pressures on Emilia-Romagna to comment. Like you, I like the looser structure and the smaller scale of enterprises, but I don't like its excessive orientation to production for the export market. I suspect that if the subsidies and other bulwarks to globalism were gone, it would reorient itself to local and regional markets. Likewise, the loose networks of sweatshops currently producing under corporate control would probably shift to producing cheap and affordable clothing (without the brand-name markup) to local markets with more locally-generated disposable income. If sweatshops contracted to Nike converted to cooperative ownership and cut out the brand-name and middleman premiums, the workers could simultaneously make astronomical increases in their own wages and reductions in the sales price, and market the shoes through local outlets.

August 30, 2006 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mutualism is perhpas the most confused and contorted political philosophy I have ever heard of. The only other philosophy I can think of that is almost as confused are the "Georgists".

August 31, 2006 6:09 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

OK, I'll rise to the flamebait.


Would you care to be more specific about your allegations that mutualism is "confused and contorted?" Or are you just engaging in drive-by insults? If you think that it is so bad, please enlighten us.

September 01, 2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger Eric H said...


Thanks for writing this, I see I will have to spend some time contemplating it before I respond to the salient points.

I was first exposed to Tom Peters about a dozen years ago, and I have learned a great deal since then. Peters is generally regarded within lean circles as an enthusiast who doesn't really get it, so I'm not sure I would rely on him as representative as lean management, kaizen, Just in Time, or any of the other related theories. Peters is a writer and consultant with little real-world experience, so his job is to write popular books and foster enthusiasm about the latest management fad, not to discover what really works (or for whom). Still, some of your points apply equally to other lean writers as well as to Peters, so this is by no means a critical flaw in your argument.

I intend to compose a longer response to this post in the near future. There is very little thoughtful criticism of lean management out there. Meanwhile, you and your readers might like to check in on this article on GembaPantaRei (a lean blog) in which a an article critical of lean is discussed (the critical article is written by a Swedish researcher who has his own management theory of holistic assembly). The link in the GPR post is broken, but the critical article can be found here.

September 01, 2006 1:16 PM  
Blogger Eric H said...

Incidentally, ISO 9000 is not a Deming knock-off. ISO 9000 traces its roots to a NATO quality push, which came in turn from a US military quality directive, MIL-Q-9858 (ca 1959, i.e. previous to Deming's "discovery" in the US). And it isn't the only example of militarism lending its methods to industrial QC (that's a teaser).

September 02, 2006 7:40 AM  
Blogger Presto said...


I wasn't aware of the military connections of ISO-9000, but I encountered military influences throught my career in QA/QC. Military standards are used throughout the field, even in shops not doing mil-spec work. For example: MIL-STD-105's inspection regime, though old and outdated, is still commonly used to set inspection levels in many shops.

Are you going to write more on the subject of militarism in QC? I'd be most interested in reading what you have to say.


September 02, 2006 8:44 PM  
Anonymous quasibill said...

Every single management consultant we had at my old company was ex-military or ex-military contractor. In fact, when we switched to project teams (with much fanfare and investment), we brought in a guy from a big military contractor to "implement" the teams - never mind that the project he worked on for the military contractor is widely seen as a huge failure. Amazingly enough, 10 years afterwards, they have just announced that they are totally dismantling project teams and instead trying some other newfangled management idea.

The management consultants always had great anectdotes to tell about how you built cohesion and mission focus. But they could never answer the question about how we could do the same things they did to maintain discipline. They always just shrugged it off and said its a matter of providing the proper incentives. Well, when you can't punish your employees effectively, you need to provide good carrots. But good carrots eat into the bottom line real fast, so inevitably it gets reduced to the vague, pass the buck phrase "[middle managers] need to manage their people better." Eventually, failure occurs, and new ex-military consultants are brought in.

Even outside that, it always amazes me that so many people think the military is some super-efficient organization to be emulated.

September 05, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

BTW, quasibill, what you say about carrots and sticks, and the effect of carrots on the bottom line, parallels Oliver Williamson's discussion of "high-powered incentives." According to Williamson, the substitution of hierarchy for markets also involves the substitution of administrative incentives for the old internalization of incentives by those producing directly for the market. Although the incentives for productivity are less intense, he writes, the lower-powered incentives in a bureaucracy are arguably less destabilizing and produce fewer conflicts of interest. And this is probably true, since if workers fully internalized the benefits of increased productivity there'd be no point from the owners' perspective in achieving increased efficiency. About the only way that high-powered, market-like incentives could successfully be used to internalize productivity benefits would be if the conflict of interest were removed through worker ownership and control.

September 05, 2006 10:50 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

The secret of discipline is that the soldiers should be more frightened of their sergeant than of the enemy This was no bluff - they could be shot for cowardice in the face of the enemy and such.

This is so old that you can even find it in the writings of Frederick the Great and Montaigne, though these are probably not independent sources.

They used slightly different wording too, specifying officers (in continental European languages the term "officer" includes NCOs).

September 10, 2006 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a note from someone who is eyeball-deep in a developing Lean work environment... In the past year that my company has jumped on the Lean bandwagon and Kaizen has become our reality, I have watched the majority of our most skilled and intelligent workers break down and leave. I myself am at the breaking point. This system does nothing but remove management responsibility from the management and place it on the shoulders of the employees. We have watched management recieve large raises and bonuses as a result of US doing THEIR jobs for them. As we have worked harder and faster and profits have gone up, our health (both mental and physical) has declined day by day. Meanwhile managers wander around on their "Gemba" rounds and do basically nothing all day.

September 18, 2006 9:06 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I thought I'd posted another comment replying to Eric H. and others, but apparently either I didn't or Blogger ate it.

Thanks for the info on ISO-9000, Eric H., and thanks to presto and quasibill on the added background on the extended military ties of the kwality industry. This all fits in very nicely with David Noble's analysis (Forces of Production) of the military role in introducing so much automated, deskilling production technology into the civilian economy. Most of the technologies used in automated control systems for machine tools (the cybernetics, the servomechanisms and feedback processes, early cybernetic technology, etc.) were developed by the U.S. military during WWII or shortly thereafter. The first use of digital control systems for machine tools was in "private" contractors producing for the Air Force.

So we've got an economy that, both technologically and culturally, has been distorted beyond recognition in authoritarian directions by the military-industrial complex. Seymour Melman treats the MI complex as a planned economy, controlling virtually the entire commanding heights of the manufacturing and high-tech sectors.

I've got an article around here somewhere, too lazy to look it up, by a guy arguing that the system of interlocking directorates and extensive ownership by banks and insurance companies amount, together, to an economic core almost as centrally controlled as that of the old USSR.

September 21, 2006 12:08 AM  

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