Lean methods are considered the best practice for organising work in the manufacturing sector and beyond. Lean human resource systems theoretically place employees’ skills and competences at the centre of the production process as employees should be responsible for ‘zero-error’ and ‘zero-waste’ production and be directly involved in improving efficiency.  And yet, lean work organisation has often been criticised for contributing to work intensification, routinisation and, ultimately, to alienation.

My research, conducted at King’s College London with the support of the Economic and Social Research Council, found that strong employees’ voice in the workplace, which is often perceived as an obstacle to lean methods, contributes to create lean HR systems promoting employees’ involvement in the production process. Through interviews with workers and their representatives and with human resource managers in manufacturing companies in Germany, Italy and UK, I investigated the differences between German workplaces, where workers’ representatives have strong voice rights on work organisation, working time and variable pay, and British and Italian workplaces, characterised by weaker employees’ voice.

I illustrate these differences by discussing the systems for improvement suggestions. In lean manufacturing systems workers don’t always have an interest in making suggestions for improving the production process.  On the one hand, suggestions such as e.g. raising the tool trolley might benefit both workers and the company by preventing back injuries and therefore contributing to a healthy and productive workforce. On the other hand, some suggestions might lead to work intensification; e.g. changing the sequence of tasks within a team for reducing waiting time might lead to efficiency gains but also to higher cycle time saturation. Therefore, workers might not always be willing to share their insights with the management unless they are provided incentives and they are able to influence how these practices are implemented.

In all companies across countries, workers could use suggestion boxes, online platforms or paper-based forms for suggesting efficiency improvements. In Italy and in the UK workers would also pass their suggestions to the team leader, who would then discuss them with the supervisor. If suggestions were considered potentially valuable and implementing them required investments, top management would get involved in the evaluation as well. It was reported that workers whose suggestions are not accepted did not always receive feedback even if requested, leading to a diffused perception that the evaluation process is arbitrary.

In Germany the system for collecting improvement suggestions, which is regulated by detailed workplace agreements between the works council and the management, is different. Every team has an elected group speaker who collects workers’ suggestions and passes them on to the supervisors. Workers’ representatives sit alongside the management in the evaluation committee and can request feedback on behalf of individual workers. The elected group speaker, rather than a team leader appointed by the management, and works councils’ supervision were reported as crucial for re-assuring workers that their improvement suggestions would be evaluated fairly and their implementation would not have a negative impact on their working conditions.

The system of incentives is also different. In Italian and British companies team discussions are limited to five minutes at the beginning of each shift, when the team leader usually briefs the team about the problems encountered in the previous shift. Therefore, workers are supposed to develop improvement suggestions during the breaks or their free time. Rewards for successful suggestions are mostly symbolic such as a lunch voucher, a baseball cap or permission to take one of the company cars for the weekend – these incentives were reported to be perceived as inappropriate by workers. While these prizes are common in Germany as well, improvement suggestions leading to relevant efficiency gains are economically rewarded using an algorithm which calculates the amount as a percentage of companies’ savings, which in some cases amounted to thousands of pounds.  Furthermore, in addition to the pre-shift meeting, workplace agreements in Germany set that teams have 30minutes/shift each week for discussion.

These findings suggest that negotiated agreements between managers and strong workers’ representation bodies like German works councils contributed to develop lean HR systems integrating workers’ skills and knowledge in the production process. Appropriate incentives, the emphasis on the collective dimension of the suggestion process through the team and the group speaker and the supervision of works councils over evaluation can encourage workers to actively participate in efficiency improvements.

Dr Chiara Benassi is Lecturer in Human Resource Management at King's College London

The full research report will be published in the following weeks on Chiara's King’s profile website: