The battle for quality in production, a reflex of the old ideology of the battle for the quality of life, is aimed at conquering wider areas of the market by proposing factory systems that were once considered to be futuristic.
Although this is apparently aimed at the conquest of new ‘clients’, it conceals another—perhaps many other—aspects that are not devoid of interest.
First of all, a battle for quality has always existed to a certain extent, in that quality controls have always existed in factories. It is just that management have now realised that computerised control of the end product is not only costly but pointless, as it limits itself to establishing lack of quality, putting a mediocre and often unacceptable product on the market.
The move to quality control, a true revolution in restructuring far beyond what it might seem at first sight, would have been impossible in the old assembly line system where the individual worker had to respect time according to the old taylorist model. The old system was based on speeding up the work pace and increasing output, while quality was only a marginal aspect of the technical side of production along with raw materials, the use of machinery, reduction of waste, and so on.
The advent of robotised production units in place of the old assembly lines has also changed things among the few workers who are left, those who take care of the non-automated aspects of finishing. This work force has now been drawn into the ideology of patronage, started in America and developed to its extreme consequences by Japanese industry.
This expedient is based on futuristic techniques that had been used by Volvo from the beginning of the Seventies, such as so-called production islands. The worker was considered to be the supplier of a hypothetical client in the same factory. For example, the worker assigned to finishing car door handles came to be considered a supplier to the worker finishing the car doors. He in turn is considered a supplier to the bodywork assembly controller, and so on up to the last client—not the buyer of the car, but the head of the production unit who controls the finished product. At each point, through rewards and incentives, each individual worker is pressured into denouncing any defects. Thus, if whoever fixes the handles lets faulty pieces go through, he is reported by his workmate at the door assembly stage when he notices that the handle does not work properly. This is done by placing a yellow card on a board. It does not lead to sanctions: such a thing would have met with real resistance because not everybody is willing to act the spy. The operator’s indication only concerns the malfunctioning handle, it is not aimed at any other worker personally. It is as though a client were to make a claim to a manager, as though within one factory people were producing and supplying products to each other. The yellow cards are discussed at a meeting at sectorial level where the causes of the technical deficiency are discussed and remedies are found.
A few considerations can be made concerning this internal collaboration which is being requested of the old working class.
First of all, although it is an idea that comes fairly close to co-management, it is more secure as it takes the workers away from the level of decision-making and puts them in a conflictual relationship with one another at every level of production, something that wards off any ideas about self-management and eliminates the possibility of a growth in class consciousness.
In the second place these initiatives, which are not limited to the production line but permeate the whole new way of considering the productive setup (therefore also administration, research, sales and so on), have been made possible through the computer technology which has transferred all the tasks still linked to rates of production, therefore to time, to completely automated processes, i.e., they are carried out by robots.
Finally, the consequences of this way of proceeding should be pointed out: class disintegration at the workplace, artificial quality competition, professional competitiveness that has nothing real about it as it contains its own limited range of possible intervention, a reduced interest in making claims through the union, and the disappearance of any of the more advanced conflictuality that the unions often found themselves forced to tolerate and manage.
The benefit for capital is considerable and varied: avoiding quality controls, obtaining superior quality leading to greater competitiveness on the market, reducing costs, and controlling conflictuality by channelling it in the direction of simple market competition.
These are all instruments against which the unions are disarmed.
[Original title: La fabbrica e la qualità, in “Provocazione”, no. 25, April 1990. English translation by Jean Weir published in "Let's destroy work, let's destroy economy", Elephant Editions, London.]