First in, first out: A case study of lean manufacturing's "success" in North America's automobile industry


This paper describes a three-year case study (2003-2005) of General Motors' (GM) Lansing Grand River Assembly (LGRA) plant, the first new vehicle assembly plant in North America to be built on GM's Global Manufacturing System (GMS), a globally integrated lean manufacturing model. The paper is an ethnographic journey to understand the LGRA's perceived initial "success" with lean manufacturing. In the study, LGRA's economic performance is related to two Participant Propositions, one connecting performance to the plant's rural workforce and the second predicting performance declines based on the transfer of "other" workers to the plant. Findings from the case, overall, contribute to the literature on lean manufacturing and participatory work processes, describing how organizational and institutional processes beyond the control of a single plant can possibly lead to a breakdown in participatory structures, creating risks for the long-term sustainability of lean manufacturing approaches. Copyright © 2010 by the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Publication Title

Human Organization