Over my career one question that I have been asked repeatedly is, “Does lean work in a Union environment?”
I have found that people ask this based on a couple of reasons. One reason is they see the success of lean at Toyota and they are a non-union company. The other reason is the company they are working in either is a union environment that is fighting the lean implementation or a non-union environment.
The answer is absolutely yes lean can work and has worked in union environments. I have worked in several union facilities with different unions. It all comes down to how management approaches lean and how willing the union is to accepting what they are hearing. Of course, how management approaches it can greatly effect how unions might accept it.
When I started working for an automotive supplier the facility had just changed leadership. The change was due to the previous leadership doing almost every possible illegal act to prevent a union from coming in to the non-union facility. The facility spent 4 years in litigation before everything was settled and a vote was scheduled to take place. Over that time we had started implementing lean and were having great success. Year over year improvements, increased profitability, and increased morale. When it came time to vote the union was voted down 420 to 4. Quite a resounding number. I believe lean was a part of the reason. We were getting employees engaged and showing they mattered. We didn’t want them “checking their brains at the door.” This was a case of how lean showed the respect for the people so they didn’t feel a need to unionize.
When I worked in HVAC, 3 of the 4 facilities were unionized. All three of the unionized facilities were represented by different unions. In one location, the leadership team was going on a benchmark trip to kind of “kickoff” deeper lean implementation. The plant leadership invited the union leadership to come with them on the trip. The facility they were going to benchmark was represented by a union also. During the trip both the plant and union leadership toured the site and saw the work they had been doing. At one point, the plant leadership invited the union leaders from our plant to have a private discussion with their union leaders to understand the benefits, hurdles, and lessons learned from implementing lean in the union environment. It was extremely powerful. It showed the union leaders that the plant leaders didn’t want to influence their decision. By the end of the trip the union leaders were 100% onboard with plant leadership. The union leaders were the ones that communicated to their people about going down the lean path. It allowed for a very open and a much easier implementation and relationship with the union.
At the same company, another facility had a UAW union representing the workers. The workers had went on strike a few years earlier, so there was still some animosity left over from that time. The plant leadership went in and said this is what we are doing without any discussion of how lean would impact the people and the work with the union. At first, the people resisted. This caused some work not to move as fast and also a confrontation or two. Eventually, the site lean leader did a good job of showing results and bridged the gap between the union and the leadership. There was still an air of mistrust between the union and the plant leadership. One thing both could agree upon was the economy was heading in the tank and they both better try something different to save as many jobs as they could. It isn’t the best way to have a working relationship, but as Dr. House says, “The why doesn’t matter.” Hopefully, the facility has mended those bridges by now.
My personal belief is that if you are implementing lean well and truly respecting people than a union won’t be necessary, but if you don’t the union is a way for the people to gain a voice.