ORG Blog

Can Lean Manufacturing Be Implemented in a Union Environment?

I wrote a blog for Plant Services, an online magazine, titled “Lean Manufacturing: Can Employee Resistance be Transformed to Buy-In?

My response to the question was an emphatic “yes!” and the exploration of that topic got me thinking about my experiences with implementing Lean processes in union environments. So, to the obvious follow-up question, “Can lean manufacturing be implemented in a union environment?” my equally emphatic answer is “Yes, of course!”

Lean is designed to reduce the seven “deadly forms of waste”:

  • Defects
  • Overproduction
  • Over processing
  • Wasted motion
  • Inventory (work in process)
  • Transport/handling and waiting

Addressing any or all of these can help operations run more efficiently and therefore, be more competitive which is in the long-term best interest of job security. But, in my experience as a former union member and internal change agent and currently as an organizational change consultant, Lean implementation in union environments can be tricky. Here’s why.

  1. Gung Ho! Lean initiatives are typically introduced and championed by management leaders who sometimes see Lean as the silver bullet to solve their manufacturing problems. In their zest for addressing the ills of waste that plague their production lines, it’s easy to skip the critical step of involving stakeholders in the decision to launch the initiative and the all-important planning of how.

  2. Lipstick on a Pig. No matter how you try to paint it, lipstick on a pig is not pretty, and the members at the union hall aren’t buying it. In locations where labor relations are strained and fostering distrust in management, union members may be quick to jump to the impression that Lean as a pig whose lipstick is designed to disguise intentions to gain efficiencies in order to eliminate jobs.

  3. The Last to Know. Sensing labor leaders may be averse to Lean initiatives for a variety of reasons (including #2 above), management sometimes opts to avoid the perceived conflict and fails to bring their union counterparts into the discussion. Or, they decide to get “just a little way down the road” before sharing the information, or in organizations where labor and management leaders are not engaged in every day conversations about the business, it just may not occur to management to share the information.

    Whatever the cause, if management fails to engage with the union before the decision to implement is made, then they’ve waited too long. In almost every case this will mean news of plans to implement a Lean initiative will hit the plant floor before it hits the union hall. And when that happens, union leaders may feel management has made them look foolish, out-of-the-loop and/or ineffective in their role of protecting jobs.

    As a result, union leaders may react by joining in the fracas and inadvertently give credibility to misinformation, making it ever more difficult to reverse course and build union and employee support for Lean.

All of these factors and more can pile on until it seems nearly impossible for Lean processes to work in unionized environments. But wait… before pulling the plug (and the rug out from under the operations that most need the efficiencies Lean can bring) leaders would be well served to consider these actions that can help Lean processes take root and flourish in even the most arid labor-management environments.

  1. Gung Ho? Let’s Go… Together. Management  leaders interested in implementing Lean processes need to assure they don’t leave would-be partners at the gate. So often, the issues that Lean seeks to address are the same factors that have irritated and plagued workers for years. They’d like to resolve those problems as much, or more, as management. Where there’s  a shared interest in finding a better way to do work that eliminates waste and makes the operation—and the work day—run more smoothly, there is also an opportunity to embark on a Lean process together.

  2. Lose the Lipstick. The best way for management to address workers’ concerns about job loss is to confront the issue directly. If there will be job losses, management has a legal obligation to notify the union. If management plans to offer re-training and transfer opportunities in the event that efficiency gains may result in the need to re-define job classifications, that’s likely to have ramifications for the collective bargaining agreement as well. Or, perhaps management believes efficiency gains will enable the firm to expand its business, creating new jobs. In any of these cases, the point is that direct, straightforward dialogue with union leaders about Lean’s potential impact on jobs will equip them with information they need to address members’ questions, and help prevent unfounded fears from spiraling out of control.

  3. Sooner is Better. Many times, I’ve heard management leaders hesitate to communicate with their union counterparts because “We don’t have all the information yet.” Waiting until all the information is known and decisions are at hand is simply too late. Once plans are fully baked, there’s not much to discuss. Instead, management is setting up the classic “I tell; You react” chain of events that fosters adversarial relations. Letting labor leaders know what’s being considered and why well before the actual decisions are made, can go a long way toward building trust and the foundation for a productive labor-management relationship.

In summary, my “Yes, of course,” response to the question of whether Lean can be implemented in union environments, hinges largely on management taking a proactive approach. It requires engaging union leaders in a frank discussion about Lean, and their motivation for considering it; exploring shared interests and concerns with labor leaders; discussing the potential implications on job security; and exchanging information early and often throughout the process.

While applying these approaches will create an opportunity to successfully introduce a Lean process, implementing it requires an on-going commitment to open communication and diligent efforts to involve union leaders and members in the process in meaningful ways. Successful Lean processes do not happen to employees and union leaders; they happen with them.

Phil Minter is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group. He is president and founder of Partners in Progress, LLC, which focuses on building employee engagement in operational improvement and creating internal capability for sustaining positive change. He is a Six Sigma Green Belt, is Lean Management Certified and ISO Internal Auditor Certified. Phil can be reached at

Topics: Breakthrough Collaboration Labor Management Leadership Sustainable Change