Monday, February 11, 2013

Walking the Fine Line: Pride in a Panopticon

In the past lecture about the philosophy of Lean I learned a lot about drawing insight from others and the importance of developing custom fit per application. Toyota management recognized that American models could not fit their limits and restrictions. In response to the limitations of the Ford model, Toyota developed a philosophy of only pursuing activities that produced value. Value that customers were willing to pay for.

This lecture brought to mind the work of Jeremy Bentham and the Panopticon. The Panopticon is the architectural concept that a space can be designed so watchmen could watch inmates without the inmates knowing whether or not they were being watched. This work was discussed in the context of education and factory work by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. These works became interesting to me in the context of Lean because the Toyota Production System did not only develop a process for manufacturing. They developed a philosophy and ethos for work that was efficient and effective. TPS accounted for human potential as well as human error. The two philosophies seem related because they use processes to direct human interaction.

One of the ways the Toyota Production System (TPS) sought to improve quality was by viewing the worker as a holistic being. Through the lens of TPS the objectified worker of industrialization is rational and capable of jidoka - automation with human touch. Systems were put in place to assist or optimize the human touch. But did/does Japan have a unique social perspective towards their work, community and value of work? (Drawing a distinction between Labor and Work that Hannah Arendt discusses in the Human Condition, labor is like a 9-5 jobby job versus work - the product of an artist). It seems like the common perception of manufacturing workers in America is that of labor. It is often mindless and machinistic - and management would like to replace it with a machine if it could. The perspective that I have glimpsed from our discussion of Lean manufacturing reveals a different perspective.

This perspective is a stark change from the capabilities workers are assumed to have in Western contexts. And that makes me wonder how different ideas like the Panopticon and Lean? Both were processes and design concepts to optimize human interaction. In a post by a fellow student Jesus Leal, he challenges organizations to  develop the next big innovation rather than relying on popularized systems that worked for others. Implementing Lean in the workplace without recognizing differences in social perspective and cultural aspects may be detrimental to workplace environments and fabric of organizations that maybe shouldn't operate Lean.

I think one of the most valuable lessons to learn from the TPS is their approach rather than their application. They understood their limitations, assets and goals. From there they developed a process that enabled Toyota to accomplish great things. But how can manufacturing balance technology to maintain value in labor and pride in work?

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