For some time now, the business press is announcing the definitive demise of the traditional system of work organization based on the principles developed by Taylor and Ford. In its well-known study of the automobile industry, a research team of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has presented the Japanese production system, which they call "lean production," as the historical successor to the system of "mass production," that was developed by Henry Ford in the early decades of this century: ". . . we believe, lean production will supplant both mass production and the remaining outposts of craft production in all areas of industrial endeavor to become the standard global production system of the twenty-first century" (Womack et al., 1990, p. 278). The message that Ford's system ("Fordism") is dead is not particularly new. It has been around at least since the mid-1970s (Dankbaar, 1993). In Europe, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, sociotechnical systems design (STSD) had already presented itself as an alternative to the traditional Taylorist design of jobs and organizations since the 1950s. It is not surprising therefore that the understanding and implementation of "lean production" in Europe is often filled with sociotechnical elements (RKW, 1992; Heidenreich & Schmidt, 1993; Schumann, 1993). The MIT study, however, was highly critical of the sociotechnical approach, exemplified by the Volvo factory of Uddevalla. This plant represented in many ways the most radical break with Fordism in car production as it eliminated the moving assembly line completely and had a complete car assembled by small groups of workers (Ellegard et al., 1992; Sandberg, 1995). The MIT researchers, however, described the Uddevalla plant as a step backward in history, back to the traditions of craft production. And indeed, history seemed to agree with the MIT study as the Uddevalla plant was closed in 1993. Since then, other European car assembly plants have also moved away from production systems with stationary workplaces and longer work cycles. Thus, it seems that at the same time that Fordism is being replaced by another system, STSD as the longstanding apparent heir seems to be losing out. This paper discusses several questions in relation to this development. Can lean production (LP) be considered as an alternative approach to replace Fordism? How does it compare to the longstanding alternative STSD? Can STSD be subsumed under the Japanese model? Should STSD be critical of lean production? Or should it try to integrate elements of LP into its own approach? Clearly, the relevance of these questions extends beyond the car industry. Throughout this century the car industry has been a source of inspiration and model for the organization of production in other sectors and the impact of the lean production debate certainly shows that it still plays that role.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE OLD SYSTEM
Mass production was introduced to the car industry by Henry Ford and involved among other things a continuously moving assembly line and highly mechanized production of standardized parts. The possibility to use expensive dedicated machinery to produce parts with a high degree of precision was central to the system, that relied on large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers. In this respect, Ford continued and perfected an American tradition of producing interchangeable parts (Hounshell, 1984). Whereas carly car manufacturers had to make use of skilled "fitters" to work on individual parts and fit them together, Ford could use unskilled workers in assembly because the parts were always fitted. As a result, the workforce contained only relatively small numbers of skilled workers and engineers, mostly in supervisory and planning functions. The specialized machines producing parts generated large inventories. In order to keep costs under control, the range of products and therefore the range of choice for the customers was kept limited. This is exemplified by Henry Ford's famous dictum, that the customer could have a car in any color, as long as it was black (Lacey, 1986).
Just 2 years before the introduction of the first assembly line in the auto industry (1913), Frederick W. Taylor had published his "Principles of Scientific Management" (1911). Taylor's star had been rising rapidly in the first decade of the century and even though it lost some of its brilliance in later decades, the basic ideas of "scientific management" remained very much alive throughout the century. Taylorism stands for a new, systematic way of thinking about the organization of production by a new, rapidly growing group of professionals: the engineers (Noble, 1977). At the core of Taylorism, we find, first, a sharp division of labor between management (engineers) and workers, where workers only execute the tasks that have been designed for them by management; and, second, the notion that the best way to execute a job can be determined scientifically, especially by "time and motion" studies. Payment of the worker had to be related to this scientifically determined standard for a "fair day's work." Moreover, workers were to be selected scientifically, meaning that their skill level should be just enough for the job at hand. A whole tradition of testing grew out of this approach and the development of industrial psychology is closely related to the rise of scientific management.
In Ford's production system, elements of Taylorism were clearly present. What Ford added, however, was the importance of mechanization and the use of machinery to pace work. Time and motion studies were employed to determine manning levels for the assembly line. The machine ultimately set the pace of work at Ford. Workers lost the possibility of influencing the standard for a "fair day's work," because the pace of the line determined the volume of production. The strict separation of planning and execution of work resulted in a very high division of labor in production, based on the short cycle times of an assembly line moving at about 60 cars an hour, in combination with an extensive work planning and industrial engineering function. Production work that couldn't be planned in detail, usually involving skilled workers, for instance for quality inspection and maintenance, was organized in special so-called indirect departments, located more or less close to the areas where the "direct" work was carried out. Lower management had the task of translating and explaining the planning of work by the staff departments and controlling the workers.
Although Ford's system of mass production was modified to some extent by the introduction of a larger variety of cars, which led to General Motors overtaking Ford on the American market in the late 1920s, its basic principles were used to organize not only car manufacturing but all mass production of consumer goods all over the world after the Second World War. These basic principles of the "Fordist" production organization are in fact further elaborations and specifications of the old principle of the …