When we think of assembly lines, many of us envision men and women in identical uniforms standing side by side before a conveyor belt, tools in hand, against a dense backdrop of plastic and metal, performing the same basic tasks ad infinitum. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Chaplin’s Modern Times—these films are timeless in their representation of the popular conception of the assembly line as industrialism’s great homogenizer, soul-crusher, inducer of unspeakable boredom. What we don’t think of in relation to assembly lines is imagination. Why would we? What room is there for imaginative thinking in the Dickensian toil of the line worker?
New Yorker staff writer Peter J. Boyer’s reportage challenges these assumptions. In his April 27, 2009, article, “The Road Ahead,” he discusses the opening of a Nissan automobile plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, in the early 1980s. It was a bold step—the largest Japanese investment in the United States to date, to be run according to the Japanese method of manufacturing and workmanship. So how did this anomalous experiment become the most productive auto plant in the U.S. by the end of the decade?
Nissan’s success—an inspiration to other foreign automakers who soon flocked to the American South—seems to have had quite a bit to do with imagination. Pages from the Japanese playbook: Despite receiving lower wages than their counterparts in American plants, Nissan line workers “were encouraged to bring their complaints and their ideas for improving the cars directly to the top management.” Boyer adds that they “were encouraged by the company to pursue upward mobility. The guiding philosophy in the Nissan plan … was kaizen—continuous improvement—and the workers bought in” (49). We may admire the imagination demonstrated by the executives who conceived this unique working environment—a far cry from the inflexible ways of the Big Three, perhaps now on their deathbeds—but it will be more interesting to examine how kaizen facilitated imaginative thinking among the Nissan line workers themselves.
Picture yourself as a wet-behind-the-ears worker at the Nissan plant in Smyrna in the 1980s, a young person from a nearby Tennessee farm town, hard-pressed to find a decent gig until this lucky break. You don’t know the first thing about making cars, but your cousin in Michigan has told you it’s tough work—exhausting, repetitive, thankless. “Cousin, you won’t last a month.”
Once, however, you’ve learned the layout and ethos of the plant and cross-trained to perform several functions there (another Japanese practice), you find that, bolstered by a team of approachable managers, you’re doing more than plugging away on an assembly line—you’re imagining on the job. Your bosses actually admonish you to dream up ways to streamline the manufacturing process and refine the cars, so you try. You perceive your potential for advancement in the company. And the work you do with your hands while you imagine with your mind is the better for it. The Nissan plant is a fluid organization that’s just as receptive to your ideas as you are to its; drudgery, begone!
Although a dramatization, the above represents my speculation as to how Nissan’s philosophy of kaizen may have activated individual workers’ imaginations in Smyrna and led (at least in part) to the plant’s shining achievements. The lessons here reach beyond the auto world. Even in the most seemingly rigid situations, inviting employees to imagine—and giving them a legitimate platform to air their thoughts—empowers them and results not only in a more integrated workforce, but also in a steady flow of new ideas.
“All right,” interjects a dubious reader, “but what about labor more menial than line work? How can, say, taxicab drivers or domestic workers be imaginative on the job (excluding irrelevant daydreaming)?” A confounding question; after all, their tasks are cut-and-dried, don’t involve the creation or production of anything, and offer little hope of change or promotion. Or perhaps I’m mistaken? I don’t know. Pleased as I am by how Nissan encouraged imagination in Smyrna—and by the example they set for businesses of all stripes that want employees to feel dignity and think freely—I am just as pained by the notion that there are members of our society whose daily functions may not leave room for the exercise of this most wondrous of human faculties. What do you think?*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.