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The Death of Work – How French TV presented Lean

October 29th, 2009 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

You may or may not know that stress at work is a hot topic in France at the moment. France Telecom, the national providers, have seen 25 suicides in just one year in a context of major reorganisation. There have been similar occurrences on a lesser scale in other companies (it turns that there are a fair number every year anyway) and, in the midst of the current economic situation, there is all of a sudden an army of journalists and psychologists with their own views on the root cause of the problems and the solutions to be put in place.

This week there has been a two-part series on French TV. It was presented as a two-year investigation (this was correct, there was filming done back in 2007) but opportunistically linked to the current spate of workplace dramas, and presented as “La Mise à Mort du Travail” – The Death of Work.

The first part was Monday evening and covered two companies. The first was a medium-sized supermarket chain and the report followed the struggles of five checkout girls who had each, according to the report, been unfairly dismissed. We never to got to hear the version of the supermarket manager in question, only deformed accounts via a very greasy lawyer, but you can imagine that the programme was not heavily biased towards the employer.

The second was an interesting one – Carglass, market leaders in windshield replacements. The French CEO is an ex-Directeur of Human Resources of the company. Rare! We started off with pictures of everyone hugging each other and screaming just how happy they were (I can assure you that the French character does not lend itself easily to this kind of training course, but they were doing it), and it switched to the CEO who stressed the importance of people in his organisation, and how the company couldn’t succeed without their implication… and that the company was doing very well, thank you.

We also saw Mr.CEO walking his Gemba, and also at an evening at the national Stade de France stadium which he’d rented for an all-hands meeting, at which he was to be seen both formally and informally discussing with groups and individuals. He also told us that the number one performance measure his managers were judged on was customer satisfaction – and he had a full-time office of telephone operators following up with customers to gauge this.

Gosh, 60m of us in France were thinking, wouldn’t it be great to work here.

About halfway through the programme, the tone changed. We saw the call centre manager showing us his new software which monitored the time spent by each individual on breaks. It flashed in red if the cumulative total exceeded 30 minutes in a day (including lunch). In the garages where they actually do the work, the manager we followed never actually got around to managing – he spent most of his twelve hour days handling the paperwork (no secretary) and warding off impatient customers (not enough technicians).

We then switched to Brussels, at a shareholder meeting. Pinstripe suits, brushed back hair, self-congratulatory presentation on how the car glass business was up 33% on last year. Just after we’d heard from Mr.CEO in response to an employee question that there was no possibility of pay increases this year, the context was too difficult.

And, cherry on the cake, we’re told (no real evidence presented) that in fact the importance placed on customer satisfaction was directed less at the final customer than at the insurance companies that actually paid for the work, and who obviously make the choice of the company for the repair work.

Unsurprisingly, the first part of the programme finished with our brave young manager leaving the company, burnt out at 30. Even the HR trainer who managed to get the French to hug had left, for a different lifestyle in the country.

It was all fairly despondent, a good piece of journalism if this was indeed the effect they looked to produce.

And so, in this climate, part two was last night. First person we see on the screen? Henry Kravis, king of the LBO, and the first thing we’re told is the size of his personal fortune whilst a few American skyscrapers appear on the screen. Henry K. company bought a conglomerate a couple of years ago that included Fenwick, the forklift manufactuer, who have a number of factories in Europe. The first part of the report dealt with how Fenwick use outside consultants to improve the performance of the sales force , and we had the standard psychologist/psychoanalyst explaining how this placed a great deal of pressure on the individuals.

We then got to see an excerpt of Henry K. giving a presentation, where he explains that basically his job is process and supply chain improvement to turn companies around. Even the journalist managed to spit it out with a strong French accent – Lean Manufacturing!

We actually saw some process improvement going on on the shopfloor. It looked pretty good stuff. The majority of the comments on Lean however came back through the trade union representatives. And you can imagine they weren’t actually that positive. We actually them visiting their TU colleagues in the Toyota factory in Valenciennes, in the north of France, hugging the book from Kamata : Toyota, the factory of desperation. We then get the same psychologist/psychoanalyst making exactly the conclusions as he had on the salesmen.

We then switched to a photo of Henry K dancing with someone who is probably his wife (a lot taller and and lot younger) and were told how much he earned in an hour, in a day, and in a year. And exactly what multiple that represented of a Fenwick operator’s annual salary. And this was the Henry K who had told us that his job (a major shortcut here) was to implement Lean Manufacturing.

Maybe Lean Business France can switch to making pancakes!?

For those with French-language inclinations, here’s a link to the TV company’s web site where, if you are gluttons for punishment, there are video excerpts from the programme.

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