December 3, 2021
From Wessex Solidarit (UK)

Chapter Thirty-three of The Authority of the Boot-Maker by Mal Content.

Considering the success of the Japanese automotive industry in the 1980’s capitalists in the West began to look into their production methods, chiefly Toyota’s. Japan having gone from feudalism to industrial capitalist oligopoly via fascism in three generations, its culture was still geared to small scale pre-alienated manufacture. A form of the Toyota Production System was imported into various manufacturing industries in the U.K., and a semblance of it persists today. I had some experience of its original introduction in the sphere of commercial electronics and light engineering.

Called ‘lean’ or ‘cellular’ manufacturing the idea was to minimise over-production and reduce waste by adopting a ‘pull’ approach where manufacture was led by orders for finished goods. Each stage of the process held a minimal stock of parts, held in magazines on the shop floor – called ‘kanban’ from the Japanese – which were topped up only when they fell below a minimum level. Instead of workers sitting on a production line all day repetitively creating batches of parts to sit on the shelf, they would instead move around small cells producing sub-assemblies one at a time. When the order was complete they would tidy up and move on to the next job, it was supposed to allow flexibility of production and give the opportunity for workers to cross-train in different tasks. Rather than having each department ordering boxes of fasteners for example, the supplier would just come in and top up all the bins to a pre-determined level. Once the cell was set up it would virtually run itself, or rather the workers would take care of everything, including training new staff.

Like anything suddenly popularised it contained a good deal of sense and a generous helping of dogma, what happened of course was that the hierarchy in charge of implementing it threw out the baby and kept the bathwater. A bunch of more or less useless management types went on courses and came away with a talent for spouting jargon, producing pie graphs and flow charts, then got hired as consultants or project managers etc. Inspirational posters went up all over the place and everything got moved around. It lost a great deal in translation, the concept of ‘5S’ derived from five Japanese words that happened to begin with sibilants. I’ll spare you the excruciating triteness of the translation into English, but it was interpreted by management as ‘throwing stuff away’.

Naturally the capitalists’ drive for efficiency in production was to reduce cost and maximise the yield from labour-power, a lot of sanctimonious bullshit about saving the environment was indulged in and when they took away all the chairs, to keep the workforce moving around the cells, they explained that it was good for us and would reduce backache. Of course it was done so gracelessly that we all immediately acquired medical exemptions. A lot of warehouse staff were shed and the increased pressure on suppliers to manage their own orders exerted a downward pressure on wages. Meanwhile it has bled into service industries as precarity, you don’t have a job until someone calls for you.

What became clear though, was that it made an entire layer of middle management obsolete, they sat in their offices twiddling their thumbs and drawing graphs, or whiled away the days having meetings, showing people round and taking them to lunch. They’ve rowed back from it ever since; the concept of ‘Quality Assurance’ which basically means there’s no requirement for the product to work as long as the paperwork’s in order, gave them the perfect excuse to tie every task up with procedures and documentation so difficult to follow that the managers would need to be on hand to sort it all out. Some made work for themselves so effectively they had to take on deputies. One factory I worked in had 32 telephone extensions, of which half had the appellation of ‘manager’ or ‘controller’, the remaining 16 covered design, test and production engineers, inspectors, drawing office, goods in, packing and despatch, stores and admin staff. On top of that there was 5 or 6 production staff, who shared a telephone, and a couple of maintenance people.

Naturally like any skilled worker I resented having someone who hadn’t a clue what I did come along and tell me how to do it, but what I took away from the whole affair was the realisation that without too much upheaval, all production could be demand-led, organised from the ground up, with different functions integrated across industries in an organic way. The final step the bosses couldn’t take of course, was to de-alienate the process. Stop making commodities for exchange and make only those things that fulfil human need, no one need be at work until there is work to be done.

Take out the competition, profit motive, and the top-down organisation, shoot all the managers (only kidding, let ‘em find their own level of usefulness, like making the tea or cleaning the shithouses) and there would be no need for overall control, nothing would be made until it was required, one would only have to know which workers to ask and call for it in good time. If demand fell in one sector and rose in another, the workers could change roles, be trained up by their colleagues and spread the load. Factories would be designed for maximum flexibility, producing many different items. They could be modular, with each process serving several lines, and a little railway track for shifting sub-assemblies around. It might be fun for a team to follow the job around, casting here, machining there, spraying, wiring and finishing,

Everyone would work at their own pace and when the work was done we could all go and do something more interesting. Given that most activity in capitalist society is futile I believe no one would have do more than a couple of hours anyway, we’d train in many disciplines and swap jobs often to avoid getting bored. The lines between work and recreation would start to dissolve. Voluntary association would depend on the task at hand; there are people I couldn’t possibly work with on laying out a garden but could easily collaborate with on digging a ditch.

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