Lean (and mean) production: VW in the USA

German manufacturing companies have a reputation for high wages and good labor relations.  That may be justified at home, when labor unions are strong and labor rights are established by law.  It doesn’t necessarily apply to their operations in the USA.

Chris Brooks, writing in Labor News, wrote about how Volkwagen manages its Tennessee plant on the theory that workers are most productive when pushed to their physical limits.

At the Chattanooga plant, permanent employees work alongside “temporary” workers, some of whom have actually worked there for years.  Pitted against one another, both groups fear to speak up.

vwWorkers are routinely pushed to their physical and emotional breaking points. From management’s point of view, this maximizes productivity.

“Every employee there busts their ass and is injured and is working through the pain because they don’t want their job taken by a temp,” Amanda says. “It is made clear to all of us that we are easy to replace.”

That’s lean production in a nutshell: ruthless efficiency, produced by a system of efficient ruthlessness.  Workers are deliberately stretched to their limits, by a combination of competitive pressure, inadequate training, repetitive stress, and rotating shifts—so that the weakest links can be identified and eliminated.

Another central component is the “team model.”  Plant workers are grouped into teams of six and expected to work with management to continually find new ways to increase their team’s productivity.  The “team” aspect encourages peer pressure.

It’s a never-ending loop.  If you break down from stress, you’re out the door—but if no one on your team is breaking down, then the team’s load should be increased, for instance by removing a worker.

via Alternet.

When I was reporting on business for my local newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a very naive view of lean production.

I thought lean production was about eliminating waste, product defects and unnecessary layers of management.  I thought the “team model” was a hopeful development, leading to true teamwork and respect for workers’ skills and knowledge.


I don’t think it was naive to think that a lean production system based on true teamwork and voluntary cooperation would work.  My naivety was in thinking people with power, such as corporate managers, would voluntarily give it up.

You can’t have teamwork unless the members of the team have a common interest and equal power.  They can’t work together effectively if they are being pitted against each other.

I would be interested to know just how productive VW’s Chattanooga plant really is.  Can workers who are stressed-out really produce high-quality, zero-defect (well, minimum defect) products?  Maybe so, but maybe not.

I think probably you get the highest productivity at the extremes—the highest output from extreme stress, the highest quality, skill and initiative from extreme loyalty.

It seems inconsistent that VW has invited the United Auto Workers to organize its Tennessee workers.  But the inconsistency exists only if you think of VW as if the company were a person.  VW is an organizational structure in which there are many different people with different views and agendas.

Corporate executives in Wolfsburg, who have to deal with worker representatives on their board of directors, made the policy to have union representation worldwide.  Volkswagen of American managers on the scene likely have different priorities.


Volkswagen in Tennessee: Productivity’s Price by Chris Brooks for Labor Notes.

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One Response to “Lean (and mean) production: VW in the USA”

  1. JOSHUA Says:

    Hi Phil, I can absolutely attest to this sick philosophy, because I currently work for a temp agency, and often see people replaced (or thrown away) as if they were defected nuts or bolts, which is completely freightening; yet, many of these temps hang on for as long as they can with the hope of being chosen by the corporation–a luxury brand apparel based on a personality cult (so if the man at the top is found under the bed sheets with a poor boy, God forbid, everyone loses their job .

    I supervise the temp workers to ensure that they are safe and the facility is a safe environment to work. For instance, two days ago I brought to the Operations Manager’s attention that one of our temps was not wearing a reflective vest in the transit way when she was looking through boxes in one of the many multi tiered aisles, he simply dismissed me, in the midst of talking to a pretty girl, by telling me to do something about, which I did, but if safety isn’t incorporated into the facility’s operations, eventually, someone is bound to get hurt pretty bad. Since the temps are not “owned” by the corporation there is a disincentive for them to take safety seriously, which the temp agency must absorb in workers comp claims ( and, hopefully, distribution). That the name of the game. That’s not to say there’s isn’t a human element to all this, because no one wants to see others suffer an injury (unless that person is completely sadistic and has true evil in them, which I hope is a very small percentage of the population), but safety should be an investment, and as important as the products that’s being pushed out into the market.
    A couple of months ago I was accosted by the warehouse manager because he caught me taking pictures of what he thought were minor issues. that is, pallets that were jutting into one of the transit aisles, which in a fast paced environment would be a serious hazard. Instead, he told me, predictably, that I should focus my attention on the temp workers behavior. Need I say more?


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