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 The Assembly of Lean Production: An Analysis of Doing Production Improvements
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management, Department of Industrial Economics and Technology Management.
2011 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This thesis is an analysis of the assembly of the zero-defects project at Glomma Papp AS, a company on manufacture of paper, corrugated board, solid board and display, in Sarpsborg Norway. The zero-defects project was a local production improvement project based on approaches, tools and methods known as Lean. The project is seen as an actor-network, which means that its reality, and the understandings and practices of it, are effects of the web of people, structures, technologies and others who relate to it. The analysis is thus an exploration of the networks of relations, how these relations assemble or not, and the effects of these networks.

The goal of the zero-defects project was to contribute to a zero-defects practice based on mutual learning processes and broad participation. Accordingly three objectives were defined early in the process:

  • •All products leaving the factory shall be without faults (we shall discover the faults ourselves)
  • •Customer satisfaction shall be 100% (because of increased quality)
  • •A faultless production (because of increased quality) shall contribute to increased productivity in the factory

The theoretical contributions in this thesis draw on the perspectives on the construction of facts and assembly of technologies and practices found in the works of Bruno Latour, John Law, Michel Callon and others - part of what is known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT). The theoretical contributions also draw on the perspectives on theory and practice, as well as the approach to research and validity that are found in the works of Kurt Lewin, Einar Thorsrud, Eric Trist, John Heron and others - part of what is known as Action Research (AR). The thesis views the Lean’ish project as an effect of the network of relations, including both human and non-human actors. Together the people and materiality in the factory made up a web of relations that produced and assembled an understanding and a practice that became the Lean’ish project. The web of relations includes computer systems, hardware, literature, groups, conferences, people and structures. It is the people and materiality that comprise the Lean’ish project.

Lean as a basis in the project is a precarious landscape. There have been many success stories associated with Lean, resulting in an almost mythical image of Lean. Different ideologies and different traditions all seem to have found a haven inside the box of Lean. Despite the differences in ideologies and legacies Lean is treated as one thing, a single entity, a black box.

The descriptive but analytical approach is about opening up the black box of Lean and challenging the mythological image. That is, not to look at the end product or result of Lean alone, but to look at the processes leading up to the construction of something Lean’ish in the company. Lean this way becomes a way to do production embedded and entangled in the people and materiality of the company, and no longer a universal or homogenous method or approach.

The analysis is based on three nodes (or actor-networks) part of the actor-network: The quality system, the project team and the four-color silkscreen printer.

In the first node data from the case establish the adapted quality system as a hub connecting other actors in the assembly of the new way to do production. The adapted quality system embed the work of for example the project team and the literature chosen in the electronic documents and thus make the inscribed experts mobile as part of the system. This way the quality system turned procedures and schemes into emissaries bringing the experts into the daily practice and this way contributing to both strengthening and aligning the network. The data also reveal the strange relationship between resistance and support where one does not rule out the other. This is a relationship linked to the existence of alternative actor-networks turning both support and resistance to something beyond individual acceptance or rejection to include practices, structures and technologies.

In the second node the data show how the project team contributed to hold the project together and make it sustainable, illustrated in the way the project became embedded and entangled in the people, structures and materiality of the factory. The data also introduce the duality in the growth of the project and the understanding of what it was all about. The analysis this way challenges Lean as something to implement and replace it with something that is part of the people, structures and materiality and that changes as these elements change. Finally the data show the paradox of how the significance and relevance of the project is inversely proportional with the coherence in the way we understand the project. The greater strength and legitimacy to take actions the more multiplicities present on what to do.

In the third node the data establish the four-color silkscreen printer as an actor that interacts, shapes and is shaped by people and technologies in the factory. The printer also expands the network both in time and space, making elements located elsewhere and historical elements part of the assembly of the project in the factory. The reshaped printer also contributed legitimacy to the project by the increased quality of production with drastically reduced waste and thus greatly improved efficiency, value creation and work quality. The printer is no more a neutral actor but an actor that shapes and takes part in how the Lean project was assembled. The data also reveal the unpredictable and undeterministic part of the project making Lean a precarious venture in the factory. The interactive shaping and reshaping of technologies this way becomes important processes that are part of the assembly of the alliance making up the project.

Opening up the Lean black box and thus the complexities, challenges our initial beliefs about Lean as a single entity for us to implement, contributes new understanding of a Lean’ish project in practice, and contributes new knowledge on how something Lean’ish is assembled. The challenge is highlighted in the way old dichotomies become part of the same space and multiplicities in the findings. The findings suggest that the Lean’ish project is anything but a singular product brought in from the outside. The Lean’ish project is made up of odd bits and parts, not as a product of a Lean philosophy, culture or methodology, but rather a heterogeneous and manifold group of actors creating a multifaceted being.

The findings also introduce a set of processes. These processes are seen as effects of the network of actors and explain the way the odd bits and parts of the project assemble in this project. They are also precarious, un-deterministic and dynamic illustrated in the multiplicities, dualities and paradoxes introduced. The focus is shifted from the single event or action towards the interactions. It is not about if Kaizen is the best way to establish autonomous groups or if dialogue conferences contribute to increased participation. It is about building an awareness and sensitivity toward the complex ventures where Kaizen methodology and Dialogue conferences may be a part, but where the effects are results of the interaction of actors and not the single actor. The four processes identified in the findings are examples of how the relations assembled gave birth to the new practice and way of doing production in the factory.

Opening up the black box also removes the mythological image of Lean. I will argue that the origin of the mythological image is in the lack of observations of Lean practices and the materiality. Without the practices and the materiality we are left with vague, non-contextual and mythological concepts linked to culture, philosophy and methods, isolated from the actors that created the practices and thinking we call Lean. My ambition with this thesis is to bring those people, structures and materiality back in, as parts of Lean, revealing a more material and less mysterious ways of doing production. The thesis challenges the search for simple structural explanations and replaces them with a case study on how relations assemble the project. This thesis represents a change in our approach to Lean; in the way we analyze, understand and practice it. It introduces a new set of tools and methods that treat the Lean project an effect of the network of relations. It opens the black box of Lean, remove the mystery and make visible processes and materiality in the assembly of Lean. It replaces the dichotomy of theory and practice and sees theory as embedded and extended in practices.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Trondheim NTNU: Tapir Uttrykk , 2011.
Doctoral theses at NTNU, ISSN 1503-8181 ; 2011:173
URN: urn:nbn:no:ntnu:diva-13280OAI: diva2:437266
Public defence
2011-06-28, 00:00
Available from: 2011-08-29 Created: 2011-08-25 Last updated: 2011-08-29Bibliographically approved

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