World class involvement

Workers’ participation in a 4.0 lean production system

Lisa Dorigatti, University of Milan
Matteo Rinaldini, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia

Similarly to the former debate on Lean Production (LP) and High Performance Work Practices (HPWP), the current discussion on Industry 4.0 is characterized by two contrasting stances. On the one hand, some scholars tend to assume that, notwithstanding the possibly negative effects on the number of jobs (see, for example, Frey and Osborne 2013), the introduction of new technologies and the new organizational models connected with them might produce opportunities for job enrichment, the diffusion of participatory systems, the increase of the cognitive contribution of workers and the reduction of hierarchical levels (Agolla, 2018, Buer et al. 2018, Sony, 2018) On the other hand, some literature identifies the risk that the new organizational processes enabled by these new technologies might generate greater standardization, intensification of work and more pervasive mechanisms of control by the management (Butollo et al. 2018, Degryse 2016).

Based on the analysis of over 160 semi-structured interviews with workers employed in FCA, CNH and Magneti Marelli Italian plants, this contribution wants to contribute to this debate by focusing on the mechanisms of workers’ involvement adopted within the framework of the World Class Manufacturing system adopted since the late 2000s and the changes in the hierarchical structures at shop floor level this system foresees. Despite the corporate rhetoric on workers’ involvement and their cognitive contribution, workers’ interviews brings to light a critical picture in terms of worker’s participation, considered as ritualistic, and work intensification, and a tendency to consider recent technological and organizational transformations more as a source of stress, than of enrichment. Finally, the interviews show how the new organizational articulations based on the centrality of the figure of the Team Leader do not seem to correspond to a process of de-hierarchization, but rather to a reorganization of the hierarchical structure and a change of the corporate system of coordination and control.