The Multinational Monitor


A U T O   I N D U S T R Y

Management by Stress

by Jane Slaughter

The "Team Concept" --a new model of labor relations imported from Japan--has captured the imagination of U.S. auto executives, and for good reason. It promises to improve productivity and quality and to banish the union to the sidelines of the shop floor. In many plants it is already delivering on that promise--and nowhere more efficiently than in the seven Japanese "transplants" which now provide 8 percent of the assembly capacity of the U.S. industry. Some version of team concept is used in at least half of General Motors' assembly plants, six Chrysler plants and two of Ford's. Additionally, each of the "Big Three" automakers is involved in a joint venture with (or part ownership of) a Japanese auto company which uses the team concept in its most advanced form.

The business press and even the popular media have been aglow with the promise of the team concept, praising such agreements as "progressive labor contracts" and "new industrial relations." On the surface, few could object to teamwork.

The use of the term "team concept" is less straightforward than it initially seems, however. In Japan, where the system was first developed, "teams" themselves are rarely referred to. The "team" verbiage was added as a sweetener by American personnel executives to help sell the plan to their workers. In fact, the teams actually used in the plants have little in common with our usual idea of a team, i.e., a unit of specialists in which each member makes a unique contribution to a group effort--pitcher, shortstop, outfielder. No one team member is expected to play all positions. In contrast, the teams in auto plants are made up of interchangeable workers, each adaptable enough to grant management maximum flexibility. Such teams have more in common with a team of horses--equal beasts of burden yoked together to pull for a common end (determined by the person holding the whip).

The team concept has the following characteristics: 1) The workforce is divided into teams of between four and 20 workers who elect a leader and hold meetings to discuss workplace problems (in some plants the team leader, who is also a union member, is appointed by management); 2) One of its main goals is to increase management flexibility by abolishing or drastically reducing the number of job classifications; 3) Workers are to learn and perform more tasks than in a traditional plant. These two elements mean that the number of jobs can be cut considerably; 4) Workers are expected to take more interest in and responsibility for their jobs; and 5) There is to be a new spirit of harmony between local union and management as both join in a common effort to make their particular plant "competitive."

The leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) has welcomed team concept, reasoning that it offers a chance to preserve its members' jobs, and has unabashedly cooperated with the auto companies.

But team concept has been received more negatively among rank and file unionists. Team concept and the idea of "jointness" which underlies it are giving rise to an opposition trend in the UAW, called the New Directions Movement. At a January 1989 conference near Detroit attended by 900 UAW members, speaker after speaker rose to denounce team concept. "There's a new word for concessions, and it's 'team concept,"' said one worker from General Motors' Poletown plant. At an October 1989 New Directions conference, auto workers passed a resolution calling team concept "a managerial device which encourages competition between workers in order to eliminate jobs, weaken solidarity and help develop anti-union attitudes."

Fundamentally, team concept is a managerial strategy designed to increase productivity. It has more to do with changing union- management relations than with changing technology. Most team- concept plants use the traditional moving assembly line, and they vary widely in the use of fancy technology. Equally important is that, although the system was first perfected in Japan, it does not require the particularities of Japanese culture in order to function.


The best known team-concept plant is the joint venture of GM and Toyota in Fremont, California: New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). It is the most efficient plant in the GM system and has been the site of more pilgrimages by eager managers from all industries than any other factory in the country.

NUMMI builds the Toyota Corolla and the Geo Prizm and is famous for consistently high quality ratings and dramatic productivity gains. NUMMI rated very highly in a 1986 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, for example, and workers' productivity there is at least 50 percent higher than other GM plants and nearly as high as a Japanese Toyota plant.

NUMMI made U.S. managers take notice because it accomplished these feats in an old plant, without a heavy input of new technology, and using the same workers that had formerly worked in the plant for GM (though many fewer of them). In 1982, before the introduction of the team concept, "thousands of grievances were pending, drugs and alcohol were available for purchase throughout the plant, both partners [management and labor] seemed less concerned with quality than struggling over turf, productivity was low and product quality was so-so," according to NUMMI spokesperson Michael Damer. Following a two-year shutdown and a switch to the team concept, the plant has become known for high productivity, cooperation and low absenteeism. And all of this was accomplished without a confrontation with the union. Indeed, local and national union leaders are some of the biggest boosters of NUMMI. Critics of the local leadership refer to local President Tony De Jesus as "the tour guide."

To management, the NUMMI experiment "has been a very successful one," says GM spokesperson Jack Hanard. Its lessons are clear. You can take an American UAW workforce and an ordinary factory and, in two years, by changing the management, cowing the union and instituting the team concept, achieve productivity and quality competitive with Japanese companies.

The management-by-stress system

The changes in management and the union contract allowed the implementation of a total system often called "synchronous manufacturing," but more fully described by the term "management by stress." Management by stress is the most sophisticated version of team concept, even though it contradicts many traditional notions of good management.

According to conventional managerial wisdom, companies want extra parts and extra workers on hand to cover for any glitches that may arise. The goal is never to allow a breakdown to halt production. The management-by-stress system stretches the whole production system--workers, the supplier network, managers--like a rubber band to the point of breaking. Using the "just-in-time" inventory system, components are delivered only as they are needed--often directly from supplier plant to the moving assembly line. There are no banks of extra parts or readily available replacements for absent workers. Breakdowns in production are thus inevitable--but they are welcomed. A breakdown reveals a weak point--is a worker's tool designed poorly? should a supplier be subjected to more pressure to deliver promptly? Such weak points can then be corrected, creating a stronger system than before.

The device which best illustrates management by stress is andon. This Japanese term refers to a system of visual display boards placed above the assembly line throughout the plant. For purposes of illustration, imagine an andon board which shows each worker station with one of three lights: a green light indicates there are no problems; a yellow light shows that the operator is having trouble keeping up and needs help; and a red light means there is a problem which requires stopping the line.

The yellow light flashes when the operator pulls a cord. If the operator does not pull the cord again within a fixed interval, say 30 seconds, the red light comes on and the line stops. In the traditional U.S. manufacturing operation, management would want to see nothing but green lights. Engineers would design enough slack into machinery, operations and labor power so that the plant could always operate in the green.

But under management by stress, "all green" is undesirable. It means that the system is not running as fast or efficiently as it might. It is far preferable to have yellow lights flashing fairly frequently, indicating that the workers, and the system as a whole, are being stretched to their limits.

Once the system has been fine-tuned, it can be further stressed by increasing the line speed or cutting the number of workers. Resources can be taken away from stations which are always green. The ideal state is achieved when the plant is running with all stations just on the line between green and yellow.

The idea that the system is in some sense self-balancing and ever improving has great appeal to the engineer or technocrat, particularly after seeing years of waste and mismanagement in traditional factories. The opportunity for tighter control is obvious. The problem is that most of this control is exerted over human beings.

Taylorism and speedup

The media has portrayed the team concept as a humanistic alternative to the supposedly outmoded ideas of "scientific management" originated early in this century by Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor is known as the father of the time-and-motion study; generations of auto workers have worked under the supposedly scientific eye of "the time-study expert" with a stopwatch, who timed their movements and attempted to reduce each job to a series of simple motions.

In fact, under management by stress, the tendency is to specify every move a worker makes in far greater detail than ever before. Management by stress intensifies regimentation and uniformity, producing a kind of super-Taylorism. Managers attempt to ensure that the "takt" time--the time the vehicle is at each work station--equals the "cycle time"--the time it takes an individual worker to complete a job.

Every motion is carefully measured. At NUMMI a worker is told when to move a left hand, how long it must take to pick up a tool, how many steps to take to the car and so on until 55 to 60 seconds of motion per minute are specified.

With this "standardized work," jobs are to be done in precisely the same way every time, by every worker. The worker may not change the way a job is done without permission. If the worker does find a way to shave off a few seconds, the worker must tell the foreman (now called a "group leader"). Management appropriates the shortcuts and periodically "rebalances" the jobs, rewriting job descriptions so that no worker has a break. One Nissan worker in Tennessee called the jobs in his plant "eight-hour aerobics." No matter how well the worker learns a job, there is always room for kaizen (the Japanese word for continuous improvement). The worst aspect of this regimentation, for the worker, is that there is no chance to "work up the line," i.e. work faster for a short time in order to obtain a breathing spell later. The work pace is continuous and unvarying.

One of the hallmarks of old-style Taylorism was the removal of brainwork from the shop floor--all new ideas were to come from the engineers. Management by stress differs in that it seeks to make workers continually share their thoughts about the production process. At GM's Shreveport, Louisiana truck plant, for example, at model change time each team elects a "planner." The planner works not only with plant engineers but with the team itself to redesign--and eliminate--jobs.

In theory, the payoff for workers' increased effort and input is what management calls "multiskilling"--a worker learns all the jobs in a team instead of just one. The "skills" involved in these jobs, however, are broken down into such tiny tasks and are so job-specific that workers do not really become more skilled than before . They are more useful to management--more "flexible"--but they have not gained any marketable skills.

The elimination of all excess workers means the team members all have full jobs; there is no chance of helping another worker out when you can barely keep up with your own job. The hourly team leader helps the team members out when they fall behind, allows them to take bathroom breaks, keeps them supplied with equipment and runs errands for the group leader.

At NUMMI and other management-by-stress plants, there are no extra workers hired as absentee replacements. (Most Big Three team-concept plants have not yet adopted this policy.) Absent members are replaced by the team leader. If team members then need relief or help, they must depend on the group leader (who supervises two to four teams) or go without.

All the difficulties resulting from one worker's absence fall on those who are in daily contact with the absentee--his coworkers and immediate supervisors. The problems are not shifted upstairs by having the personnel department hire a "redundant" workforce to cover for absenteeism. As a result, workers tend to resent the absentee who, within the assumptions of the system, is the cause of the problem. In addition to the peer pressure, there are heavy penalties for absences. NUMMI managers claim that unscheduled absenteeism has dropped to around 2 percent, compared with nearly 9 percent for GM as a whole.

Stopping the line

"Workers can stop the line" is the most prominent feature symbolizing the difference between the team concept and the old methods of management. At NUMMI, "workers are allowed and encouraged to stop the production process if there is a problem," says NUMMl's Damer. The companies present this power as proof of their respect for the workers' humanity. "It is not a conveyor that operates men," says the Toyota production manual used at NUMMI, "it is men that operate a conveyor."

The right to stop the line is supposedly a substitute for union- negotiated production standards. In traditional plants, industrial engineers define which tasks each job entails, but once the standards are established, they cannot be changed arbitrarily. The union has the right to grieve work standards and even to strike over them during the life of the contract.

In management-by-stress plants, on the other hand, group leaders may change a job at any time, and there is no right to strike. Team-concept proponents argue that there is no need for the old, cumbersome procedures. If the worker is making a genuine attempt but cannot keep up, all the worker has to do is pull the stop cord. There is no penalty.

In practice, however, workers have found that management in team-concept plants is no more fond of an idle line (which equals lost production) than in traditional plants. It's the yellow andon lights they want to see, not the red ones. At GM's Van Nuys, California plant, for example, workers were repeatedly assured during team-concept training that they could and should stop the line if they ran into a problem. Workers took this seriously; some team leaders stopped the line when management ignored their requests for more workers. The plant manager put out a letter to employees explaining that too many line stops were putting the plant behind its production schedule; a large part of team meetings were spent going over when it was acceptable to stop the line.

As the line is sped up and the whole system stressed, it becomes harder and harder to keep up all the time. Once the standardized work, so painstakingly refined, has been in operation for a while, any problem is assumed to be the worker's fault.

The result is that workers become hesitant to pull the cord. A worker at the Mazda plant in Michigan describes the "Catch 22" in which a coworker found herself:

She had a hard time one day and pulled the stop cord several times. The next day management literally focused attention on her. Several management officials observed and they set up a video camera to record her work. She found herself working further and further into the hole. She got too far past her station and fell off the end of the platform and injured her ankle. They told her it was her fault--she didn't pull the stop cord when she fell behind.
Unions under management by stress

It should be obvious that the potential weakness of the management by stress system is collective action by the workers. "Just-in-time," in particular, has made the union potentially more powerful than ever. The lack of buffer stocks makes quickie stoppages or slowdowns in support of an immediate demand extremely effective. The same is true with labor power--if workers in a department refuse to work, management has no extras to replace them. Action by even a few members could affect production drastically. Even the team meetings could be used as an organizing tool rather than a management forum; team members could agree to elect their staunchest union member as team leader rather than the person who is bucking for foreman.

However, the union has to be willing to use this power and able to organize it. The implementation of team concept and its most onerous variant, management by stress, has been possible only because of the enthusiastic cooperation of top UAW officials and many plant-level union officials as well. Many rank-and-file workers complain bitterly that their elected representatives see themselves as enforcers of the new way of operating rather than defenders of the few rights workers have left. Joe Pietrzyk, a worker at the Shreveport plant who supports the New Directions Movement, says, "The reason the team concept has worked so well in this plant is be cause the union worked so hard to make it work." Another Shreveport worker, Dan Maurin, adds:

Here, if you put in a committeeman call, the committeeman will get the GT's [foreman's] side first, and then come and tell you why they can't help you. You'll see them fraternizing with the GT, going down the aisle laughing and slapping each other on the back....

If you've got a problem your zone man will tell you 'just be glad you're working.' Or one of their favorite sayings is 'You've got to think of the team. The team comes first.' It's gotten so people don't bother to put in a grievance because they'll tell you in advance that it won't do any good.

UAW officials publicly defend the team concept as the centerpiece of a new era of worker participation in decision- making. Bruce Lee, a UAW executive board member whose jurisdiction includes the NUMMI plant, writes that at NUMMI, "The worker's revolution has finally come to the shop floor. The people who work on the assembly line have taken control and have the power to make management do their jobs right."

Privately, however, these union leaders concede that their real motivation for promoting the team concept is to make the Big Three more "competitive." They reason that there is a better chance of saving some jobs if others are cut in the name of efficiency.

This strategy does not appear to be working. Between 1978, the last year before the UAW began making concessions in the name of competitiveness, and 1987, the number of Big Three hourly workers was slashed by 32 percent. Even if the strategy were working, a looming question remains: what about the quality of jobs under the management-by-stress system?

There is a "Catch 22" for the auto companies embedded in the team concept: in order to function, the system demands a thoroughly pliant workforce. But the speedup, which is part and parcel of the team concept, is prompting auto workers, quiescent for many years, to revolt. The New Directions Movement captured 10 percent of the delegate seats at the 1989 UAW Convention and it established a formal organization at a spirited conference held in St. Louis in October, 1989.

General Motors et. al. should remember that in the 1930s in Flint it was the work pace and company arbitrariness, not wages, which led workers to occupy the plants and to join the UAW. An auto worker of the thirties whose name is lost to history spoke perhaps for the auto workers of the nineties when he said, "I ain't got no kick on wages, I just don't like to be drove."

Jane Slaughter is a staff writer for Labor Notes and co-author with Mike Parker of Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept.

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