Accueil » 54-1 ( 1999) » Le travail en équipe dans un univers de production allégée : contrainte ou opportunité

Le travail en équipe dans un univers de production allégée : contrainte ou opportunité

Christian Lévesque et Pascale Côté


Prenant appui sur des données collectées auprès des travailleurs de l'usine de la GM à Boisbriand, cette étude cherche à mettre en évidence que leur évaluation du travail en équipe est intimement associée à la dynamique sociale qui prévaut au sein des équipes. Les résultats suggèrent que leur évaluation varie selon la capacité de coopération et d'action des travailleurs, laquelle est fortement liée aux modalités du marchandage de l'effort. Dans le cadre de ce marchandage continue sur les lieux de travail, le rôle joué par les chefs d'équipe apparaît comme un enjeu central. Il peut en effet constituer un catalyseur ou un frein à l'émergence de nouvelles capacités d'agir en commun au sein des équipes.


A great variety of forms of teamwork exist today, but many questions still remain about their impact. Although the most highly developed forms of teamwork, such as those found at Saturn (Rubinstein, Bennett and Kochan 1993; Shaiken, Lopez and Mankita 1997) and in a number of Volvo plants (Berggren 1992) seem to result in job enrichment, the impact of teamwork in a lean production context appears to be much more uncertain. Research shows that teamwork in the context of lean production does not have a significant impact on the job content of production workers. Even though complementary tasks, such as front-line qualiry control, are integrated into job definitions, there remains a high degree of job fragmentation and standardization (Adler 1993; Babson 1993; Garrahan and Stewart 1992; Graham 1993; Rehder 1994; Robertson et al. 1993). In addition to this process of job standardization and fragmentation, there is also a high degree of work intensification. However, many studies have shown that workers are satisfied with teamwork. Thus, how should workers' satisfaction with teamwork in a context of lean production be understood? Our paper addresses this question.

Drawing on a sample of workers (n = 68) from a GM plant in Boisbriand, this paper seeks to demonstrate that pattern of relationship within teams are related to workers' assessment of teamwork. Two main findings emerge from our analysis. First, workers' assessment of teamwork is not straightforward; some workers view teamwork more as a constraint, others assess it more positively, and, between these two extremes are workers whose assessment is fairly neutral. Thus, teamwork cannot be defined uniquely as a constraint or an opportunity. Second, workers' assessment of teamwork is closely linked with the pattern of social relations within their teams, in particular relations between workers and the team leader, which are in turn strongly associated with the nature of effort bargaining.

Three patterns of relationships emerge from the data: a mutual exclusion pattern, a mutual adjustment pattern and a cohesive pattern. Workers who define their team relations in terms of mutual exclusion are isolated from each other, in particular from their team leader, and deprived of collective resources. Their inability to cooperate with each other reduces their capacity to exert control over the nature of effort bargaining, which in turn reduces their capacity to alleviate the effects of job intensification. In such a context, teamwork is essentially perceived as a constraint. At the other extreme, there are workers who cooperate with each other and are able to act together (cohesive pattern). These workers are in a position to exercise some form of control over effort bargaining, in particular due to the pivotai role played by the team leader. In these cases, the team leader acts as an intermediary between, on the one hand, the team members, and on the other hand, the foreman and union representatives. The team appears then as a social construct around which a capacity to act collectively is structured. In fact, the team leaders' role as an intermediary seems to increase the teams' capacity for collective action, all of which is linked to the control workers exercise over the effort bargaining and to their positive assessment of teamwork. Between these two extremes are workers who define their team relations in terms of mutual adjustment. Their main resource cornes from their capacity to cooperate with one another and from the team lerders' willingness to act as a buffer by replacing workers on the line. Although this gives them the opportunity to alleviate partly the effects of job intensification, it does not increase their collective influence on decisions. Accordingly, these workers essentially adapt to teamwork without showing much enthousiasm.

Although these results are limited by a number of factors, they are nonetheless in line with several studies that show that teamwork in a context of lean production leads to different forms of patterns of relations. In fact, the shift is away from the singularly monolithic vision proposed by Womack, Jones and Roos (1990). These results should not be surprising. As MacDuffie and Pil (1997) have pointed out, the diffusion of the lean production model over the next few years will likely be based on a dual movement: on the one hand, the basic elements of this production model (teamwork, just-intime, continuous improvement, etc.) should become increasingly widespread; but, on the other hand, the implementation of the elements of this model are likely to vary considerably according to regions and firms. However, what is more surprising here is the diversity of views and of patterns of relationships within the same plant and even within the same department. Three hypotheses are suggested to explain this diversity. First, it may be the result of the uncertainty provoked by the decline in the number of workers. It should be pointed out that the data were collected a few months after a massive layoff when demand for the product was continuously falling.

Although the effects of the layoff are difficult to measure, it undoubtedly influenced the respondents' answers. Second, it can be hypothesized that this diversity reflects the incomplete nature of ongoing changes. On this view, the plant is in a transition phase and the actors are learning to cope with new production requirements and new roles. Uncertainty, diversity and a blurring of the organizational structure, which are characteristic of transition phases, might thus account for the workers' ambivalence. Third, it can be hypothesized that this diversity is the result of the incomplete nature of the model and its underlying rules. Management principles and rules never apply uniformly in workplaces. There is invariably a gap between prescribed work and real work. Management instructions or collective bargaining agreements do not determine the actors' behaviour and strategies at the shop floor level. Although this hypothesis may seem obvious, it suggests that we need to be cautious in interpreting workplace innovations. In fact, it is one thing to change a rule in the collective agreement and quite another to alter the rule-related practices. Hence, it is important — indeed, vital — to analyze the real nature of workplace changes if we want to understand the nature of innovations in the organisation of work.


Basado en los datos recolectados de los trabajadores de la fabrica de GM en Boisbriand, este estudio trata de meter en evidencia que sus evaluaciones del trabajo en equipo estàn directamente asociadas a la dinàmica que prevalece en el seno del equipo. Los resultados sugieren que sus evaluaciones varìan de acuerdo a la capacidad de cooperaciòn y de acciòn de los trabajadores, la cual esta fuertemente ligada a las modalidades de negociaciòn del esfuerzo requerido. En el caso esta negociaciòn continua en los lugares de trabajo, el papel que los lïderes de grupo desempenan, aparece como una parte crucial. Puede en efecto constituir un catalizador o un freno a la emergencia de nuevas capacidades de trabajar en comûn en el seno de los equipos.