Manufacturing Empowerment?
'Employee Involvement' in the
Labour Process after Fordism

Matt Vidal

University of Wisconsin


Advocates of lean production argue that a work system is truly lean only if a given bundle of practices, including worker empowerment, is implemented in the proper configuration. In contrast, my interviews and observations in six US manufacturing plants demonstrate that substantive empowerment is not a necessary condition for achieving a lean manufacturing system that yields considerable performance improvement. While many configurations I observe appear to be ‘lean enough’ for satisficing managers, one commonality among the cases observed here is that worker empowerment is limited in depth and breadth. Employee involvement may be limited in depth because substantive empowerment requires a change in organizational routine and authority structure not necessary to achieve the largely technical goals of management. Even when an employer embarks on major technical and social change, pushing beyond lean enough toward world-class organization, substantive empowerment is limited in extent due to the demands of standardization and managerial prerogative, as well as resistance and reticence among workers.

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Manufacturing Empowerment?

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