The opening sentence and central thesis of Paul Adler and Robert Cole’s article are difficult to disagree with — “A consensus is emerging that the hallmark of tomorrow’s most effective organizations will be their capacity to learn” [see “Designed for Learning: A Tale of Two Auto Plants,” Spring 1993, reprint 3436]. In these times of uncertainty and change, processes of organizational learning are certainly of crucial interest. Adler and Cole have a much more specific mission than highlighting this point, however. They seem to suggest that there is only one way of organizing effective learning in labor-intensive production of relatively standardized goods, by using revamped and intensified Taylorism —rigid standardization, minute subdivision of labor, short-cycle tasks, and narrow job roles.1 Is their argument that we are living in an age with no alternatives and no choices for production design and work organization?
They support their far-reaching contention by comparing two radically different auto plants — the Toyota-managed NUMMI plant in California and Volvo’s small-scale Uddevalla factory. NUMMI is the successful marriage of rigorous Japanese management to a unionized American workforce. The basic production technology is the conventional assembly line; the novel features are the intense work standardization, the extensive reliance on worker input in this process, and the drive for continuous, low-cost improvement. Uddevalla’s production design was completely different. Instead of one long line, forty small parallel teams built complete cars. At regular production pace, individual cycle times ranged from 1.5 to 3.5 hours — a stark contrast to the sixty-second standards on the assembly lines. In their brief description of Uddevalla, Adler and Cole mention that there were eight assembly teams in the plant. If that figure were correct, the output of the plant would have been very low (5,000 to 6,000 cars per year). In fact, there were eight teams in every assembly shop, but the whole plant had six assembly shops and a materials shop. The precise number of teams changed as a consequence of constant efforts to improve work patterns. The longest work cycles, 3.5 hours, were for the mini-teams only.
Uddevalla’s whole-car assembly was reminiscent of craft work, which some observers label “neocraft.”2 But the context was very different from any craft culture. Materials were collected in individual kits in a largely automated process using sophisticated new technology.