Europe suffers – is lean production the cure?

The International HELIX Conference in Linköping, Sweden, 12-14 June 2003, gathered together more than 200 experts in innovation, organisation studies and working life research to discuss new innovative practices in work, organisation and regional development.

One of the highlights of the conference was the plenary speech by professor Bengt-Åke Lundvall, world-wide known of his pioneering works on national innovation systems and STI-mode (science, technology, innovation) and DUI-mode (doing, using, interaction) of learning. Lundvall who also worked as Deputy Director at the OECD in 1992-95 is now interested in the role of organisational models and organisational learning in innovation. He argues that there is a clear association between organisational models and organisations' ability to generate innovations. In his view, the role of the work process is neglected in most innovation studies and innovation researchers should be better aware of the processes, through which human resources, organisational learning and personnel's interaction and collaboration help companies to innovate and renew themselves.

Statistical analyses based on Eurofound's Working Conditions Surveys show that discretionary learning forms of organisation and the quality of jobs are on the decline in Europe. This is the case in almost all countries. Lean production forms of organisation and even Taylorist forms, instead, are gaining ground. Neither Finland nor the other Nordic countries, which are on the leading edge in the spread of discretionary learning forms of work organisation, have been immune to this trend. In Lundvall's view, this should give cause for concern as regards Europe's chances of competing with countries like China, which have adopted a completely opposite strategy, in the global innovation race.

At the conference, there were many other presentations, too, which examined lean production and its effects on work and organisation. All this tells us that we are now facing the "second coming" of lean production (the first coming was in the 1990s) as a strategy to help European companies survive in the contemporary economic downturn.

Lean production is a good servant but a bad master. Lean thinking provides new insights into work and organisation, but if not supplemented with any other insights, it may turn out to be too narrow a path to create conditions for future growth for companies. A skilful manager makes the best use of lean thinking, but is not blinded by its quick-fix glamour.

Tuomo Alasoini, Tekes