November 7, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 45

Community & Editorial

The push for Lean management shows state leaders mesmerized by free market thinking

By Jack Bolton, Guest Writer

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Lean, a word so cheerily innocuous that you can’t say it without physically grinning, is the new catchword for the dwindling ranks of Washington state government. Outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a late-term executive order in autumn 2011 to introduce Lean Management, a philosophy in which any work deemed wasteful is eliminated across all state agencies in order to change the culture of public service. 

State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Director Paula Hammond sent emails that described lean philosophy as a way for the department to position WSDOT for the future and become more efficient.

At first glance, I was heartened to see that our leaders may be moving away from such profligate decisions as mortgaging our future for a revenue-depleting, highly polluting Alaskan Way Viaduct deep-bore tunnel or a mega-bridge on Highway 520. Later, in an email sent to all state employees, Hammond described how lean was based on the Toyota Production System.

It may or may not be coincidental that the word “lean” is synonymous with the word “austere,” but the proliferation of Toyota Production System is a transformational event in the post-WWII attack on workers and social economic stability. In the 1980s, Toyota’s new production system was hailed by free market promoters Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They saw it as the answer to social solidarity maintained by an organized workforce — in other words, workers’ unions. In Toyota’s lean model, workers would now be individually “responsibilized” to new levels of innovation, efficiency and effectiveness. This would obviate the need for unions, since hyperindividualized workers would now be in competition with one another instead of against the deleterious effects of corporate greed. 

Looking past the happy language of lean production philosophy, it is readily apparent that Toyota managers did not invent new management strategy. Instead, they repackaged the ideas of so-called efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor and other promoters of scientific management principles from the 19th century’s Gilded Age. Favored by the economic elite, practical results of the lean system, which has gone by many names, include higher unemployment (producing “more with less”), downward pressure on wages and redistribution of wealth to the 1 percent.

It also leads to higher stress levels for workers who are required to be more like machines, speeding up to meet “just-in-time” delivery goals; full-time workers training their lower-skilled, temporary replacements; and the degradation of workplace safety due to “structural adjustment,” which phases out a skilled workforce to bring in less competent workers from the almost union-free private sector. As in all divide-and-conquer schemes, this sort of environment never fails to breed discrimination and hinder efforts of workers to organize.

Combined, these effects create a situation that resembles the utopias dreamed of by philosopher Thomas Hobbes or writer Ayn Rand:  a social Darwinist world of all against all.

As a state employee, I had already become sensitive to the free market tenet of structural adjustments as a strategy to dismantle and privatize social infrastructure — think public schools and the U.S. Postal Service —  so my realization that lean only greases the wheels of structural adjustments came as no surprise.

On October 13, the Associated Press reported that Toyota management all but explicitly blamed its production model for more than 14 million vehicle recalls in the last two years.

This is additional evidence that scientific management will never produce more than a temporary upswing in the economy, an upswing fueled by the greed of free market elites who will be the only beneficiaries.

Economic depression is not a natural phenomenon, something to be “positioned” for and accepted as normal.  The majority of us who will not benefit from lean or any austerity program must continue to resist. 

Now that lean has been institutionalized across state government, we must ask our newly elected officials if they will insist on collaborating with the moneyed interests in an effort to right-size our global community, or will they work for equality for the 99 percent.

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