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Journal of Construction Research, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002) 147165

c World Scientic Publishing Company
Department of Construction Management & Engineering,
The University of Reading, Whiteknights,
P.O. Box 219, Reading, RG6 6AW, UK
Received January 2001
Revised April 2001
The Human Resource Management (HRM) implications of lean construction are consid-
ered from a critical perspective. Construction academics have strangely ignored an exten-
sive literature that equates lean production to a HRM regime of control, exploitation and
surveillance. The emphasis of lean thinking on eliminating waste and improving eciency
makes it easy to absorb into the best practice agenda because it conforms to the existing
dominant way of thinking. In common with countless other improvement initiatives, the
rhetoric of lean construction is heavy in the machine metaphor whilst exhorting others to
be more ecient. In the absence of an explicit consideration of the HRM implications, lean
construction is doomed to repeat the mistakes of previous instrumentalist improvement
recipes. In the face of rapidly declining recruitment rates for built environment courses,
this will do little to attract the intelligent and creative young people that the industry so
badly needs.
The tradition of Critical Management Studies (CMS) remains controversial within the
construction management research community. Counter-criticisms oered by the propo-
nents of lean construction are considered and the contribution to knowledge is defended.
There is a tendency to suppress critical work on the basis that it lacks empirical evidence
and is one-sided in its argument. If these criteria were applied to the existing lean con-
struction literature, many of the seminal contributions would not have been published.
Whilst it is valid and important to criticise the methodology of critical research, it must
also be recognized that there are methodological limitations associated with all research
paradigms. Dierent methodologies accentuate dierent aspects of reality.
Keywords: Lean construction; Human Resource Management; utilitarian instrumentalism;
best practice; Critical Management Studies.
1. Introduction
The publication of the report of the Construction Task Force Rethinking Construc-
tion (DETR, 1998) has signicantly shaped the current agenda for change in the UK
construction industry. The recommendations of Rethinking Construction (commonly
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148 S. D. Green
known as the Egan Report) have received an almost unanimous endorsement from
the bodies that shape policy for the construction industry. Examples include the
Construction Clients Forum (CCF), the Construction Industry Board (CIB) and
the Government Construction Clients Panel (GCCP). The Movement for Innova-
tion (M
I) was established as a direct result of Rethinking Construction to deliver
the identied performance targets and to promote change. The Egan agenda places
an especially strong emphasis on the ideas of lean thinking, drawing heavily on
their supposed success in the car industry. The ideas of lean production were
originally encapsulated within the Toyota Manufacturing System and are well ar-
ticulated by Womack et al. (1990). Lean thinking subsequently became the generic
term to describe their universal application beyond manufacturing (Womack and
Jones, 1996). The ideas of lean thinking comprise a complex cocktail of ideas in-
cluding continuous improvement, attened organization structures, teamwork, the
elimination of waste, ecient use of resources and cooperative supply chain man-
agement. Within the UK construction industry, the language of lean thinking has
since become synonymous with best practice.
The arguments presented in this paper are shaped by a sense of unease regarding
the one-sided nature of the current debate. The specic purpose is to challenge the
assumed neutrality of lean construction and to highlight the potentially regressive
impact on Human Resource Management (HRM). The development of a critical
perspective is seen to be an essential prerequisite to the establishment of a more
balanced and informed research agenda. Within the broad domain of management
studies, there has in recent years been a signicant degree of discussion regard-
ing the validity and importance of critical research (e.g. Alvesson and Willmott,
1996; Alvesson and Deetz, 2000; Burrell, 2001; Fournier and Grey, 2000). This has
lead to the emergence of an identiable sub-discipline labeled Critical Manage-
ment Studies (CMS). CMS is undoubtedly a fragmented and contested domain
that covers a multitude of ideas and a plurality of intellectual traditions (Fournier
and Grey, 2000). Nevertheless, the emergence of CMS has enriched academic de-
bate and provided an important counter-balance against the heavy managerialist
bias within the business school environment. In contrast, CMS has had little recog-
nition within the construction management research community. Given this lack
of exposure amongst construction academics, particular attention is given to the
counter-criticisms that are often directed at critical work. It is conceded to be im-
portant that critical researchers make no claim to have a monopoly on the truth.
Dierent research methodologies will inevitably accentuate dierent aspects of re-
ality. The development of a critical research perspective is ultimately justied in
terms of the wider cause of methodological reexivity. Whilst it is recognized that
critical work is often associated with the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), the author
makes no claim to be theoretically consistent with any single tradition of critical
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 149
2. HRM in the UK Construction Industry
There is an established dichotomy in the HRM literature between the hard model,
reecting utilitarian instrumentalism, and the soft model reecting developmental
humanism. The hard model of HRM sees humans as a resource to be provided and
deployed as necessary to achieve organizational objectives. In contrast, the soft
model of HRM treats human resources as valued assets who oer a source of com-
petitive advantage. In simple terms, the former comprises command and control
and the latter empowerment and commitment. This dichotomy is undoubtedly
an over-simplication of a complex eld where rhetoric and reality are dicult to
separate (Legge, 1995). Many organizations undoubtedly apply elements of both.
Companies are also often fond of dressing up hard HRM in a soft rhetoric (Truss
et al., 1997). The key distinction lies in whether the emphasis is placed on the hu-
man, or the resource (Guest, 1987; Storey, 1992). The dichotomy between hard and
soft HRM is a direct descendant of McGregors (1960) Theory X and Theory Y.
Several previous studies have contended that the dominant culture of the
construction industry consistently emphasises the hard model of HRM. The 1998
Workplace Employee Relation Survey (Cully et al., 1999) compared three measures
of employee participation across twelve industrial sectors: (i) non-managerial par-
ticipation in problem-solving groups, (ii) operation of suggestion schemes and (iii)
formal survey of employee attitudes during the last ve years. In the construction in-
dustry, participation in problem-solving groups occurred in only 21% of workplaces.
This was lower than any other sector with the exception of other community ser-
vices (17%). The construction industry was bottom in the other two categories by
a signicant margin. Whilst the high degree of sub-contracting in the construction
industry may account in part for these results, research by Druker et al. (1996)
concludes that the hard model of HRM dominates not only for the construction la-
bor force, but also for professional and managerial sta. Coey and Langford (1998)
further observe a low level of employee participation in construction, whilst conclud-
ing that there are no inherent reasons that prevent eective participation, even at
trade level. The European survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers/Craneld
(Brewster and Hegewisch, 1994) showed that the status and inuence of HRM on
corporate decision making was lower in the UK construction industry than in other
European construction industries. These results conrm Hillebrandt and Cannons
(1990) previous ndings on the low status of the personnel function within UK
contractors. Recent research into career opportunities for women in construction
companies has further pointed to a widespread discriminatory culture in the UK
construction industry (Dainty et al., 2000).
The conclusion that emerges from the above is clear. The UK construction in-
dustry is characterized by an institutionalized regressive approach to HRM. The
human resource is primarily conceptualized as a cost. This long-standing allegiance
to hard HRM explains the popularity of management improvement recipes based
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150 S. D. Green
on metaphors such as cutting out the waste, belt tightening and becoming
lean. The question that arises is the extent to which the current vogue for lean
construction will serve to reinforce the industrys established culture of command
and control.
3. An Industry in Crisis
The dominance of Hard HRM in the construction industry goes some way towards
explaining the current recruitment crisis. Student applications for built environ-
ment courses, including architecture, surveying, planning and civil engineering fell
by 21% between 1994 and 1997 (Gann and Salter, 1999). Construction companies
and professional rms nd it increasingly dicult to attract the intelligent, creative
young people that the industry badly needs. Other industries consistently oer bet-
ter salaries, better job satisfaction, increased job security and more enlightened
approaches to HRM. Whilst it is true that senior industrialists and government
representatives increasingly endorse the rhetoric of soft HRM, there is little real
evidence of any signicant shift in the industrys default model of HRM. Regressive
attitudes to HRM are so embedded within the UK construction industry they will
not be easily changed. It is the dominant culture of command and control that
determines the agenda for change as advocated by industry leaders. The problems
of the construction industry are invariably blamed on impediments to machine e-
ciency. Progressive improvement initiatives repeat familiar calls for attitudinal and
cultural improvement whilst advocating that others should become more ecient
at meeting the eciency targets of the technocratic elite. Rarely is there any con-
sideration of the externalities that lie beyond the narrow domain of instrumental
rationality. Even supposedly enlightened practices such as partnering and TQM are
ultimately judged in accordance with their contribution to eciency. Employees are
continually conceptualized as cogwheels in a remorseless machine. In the UK con-
struction industry, utilitarian instrumentalism reigns supreme. The primary source
of competitive advantage is invariably equated with cost eciency. There is little
recognition of human resources as a source of competitive advantage. None of this
does anything to attract new talent into the construction industry, or to empower
the existing human resources.
4. Perpetuating the Downward Cycle
The rhetoric of improving eciency by the elimination of waste is undeniably
attractive in the short term. However, the long-term eect will be to perpetuate
the construction industrys downward cycle whilst reinforcing its reputation for
unrewarding careers. Long-term competitiveness and sustainability are too easily
sacriced for the sake of short-term eciency. Whilst this perennial short-termism
acts against the development of the industry as a whole, it continues to serve
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 151
the immediate interests of the industrys technocratic elite. From a critical per-
spective, the last thing that current industry leaders need is a ood of empow-
ered employees teeming with innovative ideas. Far better to impose a regime of
management-by-stress whereby employees are constantly under pressure to meet
ever-increasing eciency targets. Each successive nancial cycle heralds a new drive
towards cost eciency. Many construction companies seem to be in a perpetual state
of downsizing to satisfy the appetite of nancial analysts. The increasingly short-
term focus imposed by the marketplace inevitably reinforces the trend towards
management-by-stress and regressive approaches to HRM. Such are the barriers to
innovation in the construction industry.
As a caveat to the above, it should be emphasized that there are important
exceptions. This is especially true for some of the UKs design practices and engi-
neering consultancies. There are a few notable rms that compete very successfully
internationally and have invested heavily in knowledge-based services. The com-
petitive advantage of these rms is based on their employees and their capacity
for innovation. Such rms seek to recruit and retain highly capable people by pro-
viding them with rewarding and challenging careers. Central to the attraction of
such organizations is the extent of job variation and the associated opportunities
for continuous personal development. Strangely, the agenda for change within the
UK construction industry does not look to its own success stories as exemplars
of good practice. Instead, the industry is exhorted to follow the precedent of the
motor industry. This advise remains intact despite continuing concerns regarding
productivity in the UK motor industry. The recent Rover debacle is the latest in
a long line of well-published management disasters in an industry characterized by
poor industrial relations and lack of investment. The primary lesson to be extracted
from the UK motor industry is that the rhetoric of gurus such as Womack and
Jones (1996) should be treated with some considerable degree of caution. It is also
notable that the Competition Commission has recently found the UK motor indus-
try guilty of price xing and anti-competitive behavior. It hardly qualies therefore
as an exemplar of customer responsiveness. The rush towards lean construction
seems equally bizarre in the light of the motor industrys questionable track record
in HRM.
5. The HRM Implications of Lean Production
Whilst strangely ignored by lean construction researchers, there is a considerable
body of research that equates the implementation of lean production to regressive
policies of human resource management (HRM) (e.g. Garrahan and Stewart 1992;
Hampson et al., 1994; IPD 1996; Rehder, 1994; Turnbull, 1988). The literature warn-
ing of the potentially adverse implications of lean methods on the quality of working
life is so extensive it is dicult to understand why it has been so systematically ig-
nored. The critical literature on the Japanese model of lean production dates from
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152 S. D. Green
Kamatas (1982) description of how Toyotas single-minded drive for success in the
1970s was accompanied by signicant personnel deprivation on the part of the work-
force. More recently, Sugimoto (1997) describes how the term karoshi is in common
use amongst Japanese workers to describe sudden deaths and severe stress result-
ing from overwork. Benders (1996), Gr onning (1995) and Rehder (1994) all refer
to growing disillusionment in Japan amongst employees and increasing resistance
from trade unions.
Hutchinson et al. (1996) report a survey that asked Japanese parents if they
would advise their children to work in the automobile industry. Only 4.5% of re-
spondents replied yes (Nomura, 1992). The most frequently cited reasons were as
pay too low for intense work (43%)
high work intensity (41%)
onerous shift system (40%)
much work on holidays and overtime (36%)
unfriendly personnel practices (33%).
Given the UK construction industrys diculties in attracting high quality per-
sonnel, it therefore seems strange to model the agenda for change on the Japanese
automobile industry. Criticisms are not limited to production plants in Japan,
but also extend to overseas transplants. Fucini and Fucini (1990) point to poor
safety standards, stress of work, loss of individual freedom and discriminatory em-
ployment practices at Mazdas US production plant in Michigan. Garrahan and
Stewart (1992) and Turnbull (1988) provide similar criticisms of Nissans plant in
the UK, held up as an exemplar by the Egan Report (DETR, 1998). According
to Garrahan and Stewart (1992) Nissans supposed regime of exibility, quality
and teamwork translates in practice to one of control, exploitation and surveil-
lance. Numerous other studies have demonstrated that the implementation of lean
methods leads to work intensication (Parker and Slaughter, 1998; Cappelli and
Rogovsky, 1994). On a similar theme, Berggren (1993) equates lean production
with mean production:
. . . unlimited performance demands, the long working hours and re-
quirements to work overtime on short notice, the recurrent health and
safety complaints, the rigorous factory regime that constitutes a new
and very strict regime of subordinations.
Howell and Ballard (1999) suggest that lean production techniques are them-
selves neutral. In an abstract sense, this is probably true. However, the implementa-
tion of lean construction in real contexts can never be neutral. Every organizational
change initiative inevitably disturbs the status quo. Whilst theories of production
can be developed in isolation of HRM considerations, they must be implemented in
the context of real organizations. Organizational change initiatives are inextricably
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 153
wrapped around an implicit HRM policy. Existing power structures are changed
with direct implications for individual job boundaries and the quality of work-
ing life. Frederick Taylor (1911) famously maintained that scientic management
was neutral whilst leaving others to worry about the dehumanizing side eects of
treating people as mindless cogwheels in a remorseless machine. The relationship of
lean thinking to Taylorism is well described by Dohse et al. (1985):
Toyotism is . . . not an alternative to Taylorism but rather a solution
to its classic problem of the resistance of the workers to placing their
knowledge of production in the service of rationalisation.
Notions of empowerment and participation are therefore carefully controlled.
Employees are only empowered to implement imposed targets more eciently.
They are not empowered to participate in the process by which targets are set or
in the allocation of the proceeds of any resultant eciency gains.
Whilst some of the above sources are undoubtedly somewhat one sided, this is
equally true for the more evangelical advocates of lean methods such as Womack and
Jones (1996) and the Egan Report (DETR, 1998). The most worrying thing is that
the debate has not even started. It is of course conceivable that lean construction
could be implemented in accordance with soft HRM. However, given the dominant
culture of the UK construction industry, this is always likely to be the exception
rather than the general case. What is currently so noticeably absent is any empirical
research data on how lean construction is implemented. Strangely, there seems to be
little interest in research of this nature. International researchers in lean construction
seem content to develop theories of production entirely in the abstract, leaving
others to worry about the dehumanizing side eects.
6. The Instrumental Rationality of Best Practice
The extensive critical literature that equates lean methods to regressive HRM prac-
tices has not prevented lean construction from becoming an established component
of construction best practice (CBPP, 1998). It would seem that lean construction
has been accepted as an essential part of best practice on the recommendation of
the Egan Report (DETR, 1998) in the absence of any supporting evidence. There
is certainly an alarming absence of convincing case studies. Such case studies as do
exist are largely anecdotal. Lean construction is seemingly a good idea primarily be-
cause Sir John Egan and the technocratic elite say it is a good idea. The task of the
research community is apparently limited to supporting the prejudices of current
industry leaders and thereby maintaining the status quo. Of course, the emphasis of
lean thinking on eliminating waste and improving eciency makes it easy to absorb
into the best practice agenda because it conrms with the existing dominant way
of thinking. Best practice rarely strays from the narrow domain of instrumental
rationality in that it is invariably concerned only with the most ecient means of
achieving a given end. Economic externalities such as trac congestion, pollution
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154 S. D. Green
and the human cost of regressive management regimes consistently fall outside the
adopted frame of reference. The limitation of best practice to issues of instru-
mental rationality is well illustrated by a recent yer published by the Construction
Best Practice Programme (CBPP):
Best Practice = Better Prots
Find out more about the relationship between Best Practice and improving prot
Learn how to increase eciency, reduce costs and improve competitiveness.
Hear, rst hand, from organizations that have beneted from implementing Best
Discover the bottom line benets from putting the theory into practice.
The above illustrates the way in which current conceptualizations of best prac-
tice are invariably limited to narrow issues of instrumental rationality. Note also that
the CBPP is funded by the DETR to the tune of $6M over three years (DETR,
1999). Why the UK tax payer is being asked to help make the corporate sector more
ecient remains unclear. The abandonment of the principles of the free marketplace
seems strangely at odds with the frequently espoused doctrine of neoliberalism. The
reality is that free-market principles seldom apply to the large organizations that
seek to inuence industrial policy. The status of BAA as a privatized quasi-monopoly
did not prevent Sir John Egan from preaching best practice to the construction
industry. The trend towards corporatism is readily illustrated by the way large or-
ganizations seek increased control through partnering and integrated supply-chains.
Come back Adam Smith, all is forgiven.
The above analysis provides a dierent starting point from which to understand
best practice. There is a subtle process at work across the numerous commit-
tees that shape the best practice agenda. It is not necessary to believe that such
committees deliberately act to further their own vested interests; merely that they
take no action that goes against their interests. The end result is the same. It then
becomes understandable why denitions of performance improvement rarely stray
beyond the domain of instrumental rationality. Best practice is judged by the
extent to which it serves the interests of the technocratic elite. Whilst it is true that
the CBPP ags the importance of developing people, the caveat is quickly added
that the eectiveness of training should be measured by its contribution to business
performance. In other words, training is only worthwhile if it contributes to com-
pany prots. Metaphors such as teamwork and customer-responsiveness mask
the reality that employees are required to act as mindless cogwheels in a remorse-
less machine. There is little pretence that any eciency gains will be shared equally
amongst the diversity of stakeholders in the construction industry. Targets abound
for reducing the cost of construction and enhancing protability. Lean construction
thereby becomes the latest manifestation of a long established trend. The rhetoric
is heavy in the machine metaphor whilst exhorting others to be more ecient. It
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 155
is taken for granted that people are compliant, predicable and willing to be pro-
grammed in accordance with the requirements of a rationally designed system. The
advise on implementing lean construction oered by Howell and Ballard (1998) ex-
emplies these assumptions. The alleged new way of managing construction would
seem depressingly familiar to the subordinates of Frederick Taylor (1911). Nothing
really changes.
Many will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that the nancial
rewards from productivity initiatives are not shared equally with the workforce.
Unfortunately, the available evidence would seem to support the above diagnosis.
To consider the US statistics, during the 1990s executive pay jumped 535% (before
adjusting for ination). The growth in worker pay during the same period was 32%,
which barely outpaced ination at 27.5% (Anderson et al., 2000). The gures for the
UK display a similar rapid increase in wage inequality since 1978 (Machin, 1996).
The available statistics are therefore in direct conict with the assumption that the
rewards of industrial innovation are shared equally. If such issues are not addressed
explicitly, it would seem inevitable that any increased prots realized from lean
construction will be distributed in accordance with the established norm.
7. Research on the Rational High Ground
The preceding discussion provides a very dierent perspective on the mechanisms
that have generated the current interest in lean construction. The lean construction
literature consistently reduces organizational complexities to a mechanistic quest
for eciency. The intellectual origins are shared with the broader disciplines of
production engineering, operational research and systems engineering. All of these
are worthy areas of academic endeavor, but none are ever neutral in their imple-
mentation. Rarely have lean construction researchers descended from the rational
high ground into the swampy lowland of human aairs where messy and confusing
problems defy technical solution (Schon, 1987). The contribution of Koskela (2000)
represents a signicant intellectual achievement, but rarely does he descend from
the level of high theoretical abstraction. Further important contributions have been
made by Howell and Ballard of the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) (e.g. Ballard
and Howell, 1997) and Tommelein (e.g. Tommelein, 1998). These US-based con-
tributors draw heavily on the tradition of production engineering and are primarily
concerned with the physics of production in the service of higher performance
(Howell and Ballard, 1999). The domain of enquiry is invariably limited to instru-
mental rationality and as such provides no challenge to the industrys dominant
ideology of utilitarian instrumentalism. Such research therefore passes the basic
test of best practice; others must become more ecient in serving the interests
of the industrys technocratic elite. Tommelein has also done much useful work in
supply-chain mapping and simulation, although consideration of the HRM impli-
cations of lean construction is once again notable by its absence. The dominant
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theme of all these sources is the quest for optimization with associated assumptions
of scientism and the treatment of people as passive objects. The current research
agenda notably ignores the meaning and experience of lean construction for the em-
ployees. The possibility of employee intransigence born from the failure of previous
top-down Taylorist management initiatives is not recognized. From the perspective
of the workforce, the rhetoric of mapping value, optimizing ow and endeav-
oring for perfection must seem depressingly familiar. Whilst not addressing HRM
issues directly, the contribution of Seymour (1999) to the development of a socio-
logical perspective on lean construction nevertheless warrants mention as a notable
exception to the general trend.
The tendency of international researchers to ignore the HRM implications of lean
construction is also reected amongst many that have advocated lean methods in
the UK (DETR, 1998; Flanagan et al., 1998; Saad and Jones, 1998). When issues of
HRM are raised they tend to be at the level of the team, rather than being treated as
issues of strategic signicance. This tendency is notable within the people manage-
ment research agenda of the Agile Construction Initiative (ACI) at the University of
Bath (Hall, 1998). As with other generic notions of best practice, eective teamwork
is seemingly judged by the extent to which it meets the needs of operational e-
ciency. Convincing empirical research from the automotive sector suggests that lean
teamwork tends to occur within highly standardized and routinized work regimes
(Delbridge et al., 2000). As such, it oers no advance in terms of worker autonomy.
The occasional lip-service given to teamwork within the lean construction literature
does little to dispel the suspicion that the lean model of teamworking ultimately
equates with compliance and conformity.
8. Counter-criticisms
Given the limited tradition of critical work within the domain of construction man-
agement, it is necessary to acknowledge some of the counter-criticisms that are
likely to be directed at the argument developed in this paper. The review that fol-
lows summarizes the most common counter-criticisms directed at critical research.
It is of course important that all research is subject to criticism. It is especially
important that critical researchers are self-critical. Unfortunately, the debate re-
garding the validity of critical research within construction management often never
progresses beyond simple rejection. This is to the detriment of construction man-
agement research internationally. Some of the counter-criticisms leveled at critical
work are fatuous and can be dealt with easily. Others are more philosophical and
can never be entirely resolved. Nevertheless, making such counter-criticisms explicit
serves to explain some of the assumptions of critical research and to clarify its
contribution to knowledge. It also serves to highlight some of the schisms and con-
ceptual chasms that fragment the slippery domain of Critical Management Studies
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 157
8.1. Contribution to knowledge
Some observers nd critical research to be overly negative. The argument is that
research should seek to move the industry forward, rather than deconstruct the
contributions of others. Hence critical work is not recognized as a valid contribution
to knowledge. Such a view reects an instrumental and uni-dimensional view of
knowledge. Within the physical sciences, it is reasonable to assume that knowledge
can be accumulated into a single coherent structure (notwithstanding the occasional
Kuhnian paradigm shift). This is not the case for the social sciences where irresolv-
able schisms abound (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). Of course, within the physical
sciences there is an ultimate arbiter in nature. In contrast, within management
studies the subject of study is undeniably socially constructed. Knowledge within
the social sciences often comprises an understanding of dierent insights provided
from dierent theoretical perspectives. To develop an appreciation that such in-
sights are not necessarily reconcilable is part of being knowledgeable. The argument
is well-summarized by Alvesson and Deetz (2000):
Research . . . may aid human development by highlighting the precar-
ious and debatable nature of knowledge rather than unidimensional
and accumulative truths.
Exposure of false gurus and unfounded propaganda is seen to be an important
role of the academic. Within the construction management academic community,
researchers are frequently too accepting of the policy prescriptions advocated by
governments and industry leaders. In the absence of critical orientation in research,
academics are consigned merely to reproduce established conventions that main-
tain the status quo. Critical research therefore seeks to challenge the way in which
management studies subordinate knowledge to eciency of production (Fournier
and Grey, 2000). Whilst it is true that management research is generally normative,
this is by no means pre-determined. Universities have a broader responsibility to
focus on the externalities that lie beyond the instrumental rationality of improving
8.2. One-sided view
Critical research is often criticised for being one-sided. This paper would be rejected
by many on the basis that it addresses only the potential negative aspects of lean
construction. Strangely, such commentators feel quite comfortable that 95% of the
lean construction literature addresses only the potential positive aspects. Dierent
standards seemingly apply to critical research. Given the huge imbalance of the
existing literature, the development of a critical perspective is extremely important
in developing a better overall balance.
Leaving aside the issue of double standards, the point of primary importance
is that researchers should be self-conscious of the assumptions of their adopted
position. Every research methodology possesses limitations and assumptions. This
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158 S. D. Green
applies to critical research to no less an extent than to other research paradigms.
Dierent research methodologies will accentuate dierent aspects of reality. Critical
research is undoubtedly one-sided, but it is at least self-consciously one-sided. This is
more than can be said for the popularist rhetoric of lean construction. Philosophical
and methodological reexivity is central to the critical project (Fournier and Grey,
2000). It is not an issue of drawing battle lines between positivistic studies and
critical work. The point is that the positivism of the mainstream is rarely made
explicit and defended. It is further notable that interpretive researchers such as
Seymour (1999) tend to justify the need for ethnographic research vis-`a-vis the
limitations of positivist research. Such justications invariably neglect criticisms
directed at ethnographic research from critical perspectives.
Whilst it is valid and important to criticise the methodology of critical research,
it must also be recognized that there are methodological limitations associated with
all research paradigms. Critical researchers are probably more careful than most
in emphasizing their adopted position. The author considers it important that no
claims are made to possess a monopoly on the truth. The underlying belief is that
reality is multi-perspective in nature and that researchers must seek insights from
dierent theoretical perspectives. A growth in critical research will serve to provide a
better overall balance within the construction management community. At present,
the community is far too strongly orientated to the needs of management. This
orientation militates against a balanced research agenda. Researchers should have
at least some concern for the victims of lean construction rather than limiting
the domain of interest to increasing eciency. There is an important distinction
between research of management and research for management.
8.3. There is no alternative
Some commentators equate any attempt to criticize lean construction with a general
critique of the capitalist model of production. To criticize lean methods is there-
fore a pointless exercise in the face of an irresistible inevitability. This point of
view is often encapsulated in the expression there is no alternative (TINA). Such
counter-criticisms would seem to depend upon a homogeneous view of the capi-
talist model and a rather depressing fatalism regarding our assumed inability to
change it. The authors contention is that capitalism comes in a myriad of forms and
can be implemented in a myriad of dierent ways. For example, there is a signicant
dierence between the laissez-faire capitalism of the Washington Consensus and
the Keynesian model of Bretton Woods. Other examples include the mercantalist
model of the 19th century and the distinctive variants currently operated in Russia,
Japan and Germany. Whilst it is true that the so-called Washington Consensus is
becoming increasingly dominant, such structures are by no means pre-determined
or inevitable. All models of capitalism are socially constructed and therefore sub-
ject to re-negotiation. Even during the high point of laissez-faire capitalism in 19th
century Britain, progressive thinkers such as Joseph Rowntree at York and Robert
January 23, 2002 17:30 WSPC/177-JCR 00011
Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 159
Owen at New Lanark operated exemplary factory communities. Production systems
continue to lie at dierent points along the HRM continuum. The argument is that
unless the HRM implications of the lean model are made explicit, it will inevitably
be implemented in accordance with the construction industrys default recipe. In
the long term, this will not only be to the detriment of employees, but will also
impede the industrys economic performance.
8.4. Marxism vs. postmodernism
Directly associated with the preceding TINA argument is a tendency to stie
meaningful debate by labeling all criticism as Marxist. In the authors experi-
ence, this response tends to come from academics rather than industrialists. This
is strange given that academics would normally be expected to be more supportive
of the need for criticism. In the context of methodology, criticism is an essential
activity. It is not necessary to be a disciple of Popper to recognize the role of cri-
tique in the progression of knowledge. To dismiss all criticism as Marxist is to
avoid debate and thereby limit the progression of knowledge. Whilst the Frank-
furt School of the 1930s may have had strong Marxist leanings, this is not true of
modern critical writers who draw from a plurality of intellectual traditions. Many
critical researchers rely on postmodernist notions of organization, emphasizing the
constructed nature of reality through language. For many, Foucault is a much more
powerful underlying inuence than Marx. A Foucaudian approach would seek to sen-
sitize people to the pervasive nature of power-based discourse. This is in contrast
to the emphasis on direct coercion and the structural dierences between capital
and labor found in classical Marxism. It cannot be denied that there is a signi-
cant schism within CMS between these two points of view. Nevertheless, the debate
in recent years has moved beyond these two polarities (Fournier and Grey, 2000).
Whilst the emergence of any unitary position is likely to remain illusive, the ongo-
ing debate enhances methodological reexivity whilst addressing important ethical
issues associated with critical work. Ultimately, individuals tend to adopt positions
with which they feel comfortable. The present author certainly feels uncomfortable
with structural Marxism and its underlying assumptions of rational positivism. He
would therefore tend to align himself with the relativist tradition of postmodernism,
whilst retaining on awareness of the dangers of moral nihilism. It must be recog-
nized that critical research in construction management will never provide an easy
option. But a continued blind allegiance to empiricism is not a viable option.
8.5. Empirical evidence
The above discussion raises a further common counter-criticism that is often di-
rected at critical research. There are some who would seek to reject the arguments
presented in this paper on the basis that they are not supported by empirical evi-
dence. Within the context of lean construction, it is necessary to point out that there
January 23, 2002 17:30 WSPC/177-JCR 00011
160 S. D. Green
is again an implied double standard. If the criterion of empirical evidence were ap-
plied to the lean construction literature as a whole many of the seminal contributions
would never have been published. It should be noted that lean construction is in
itself a theoretical construct. Koskela (2000) has championed the cause of theorizing
in respect of production. His work in the development of theory is widely recognized
to be of central importance amongst lean construction researchers (e.g. Seymour,
1999). Strangely, the same degree of importance is not attached to the cause of
theorizing in respect of the HRM implications of lean construction. Some theories
are seemingly more acceptable than others.
Notwithstanding the above, it must be conceded that critical researchers are
faced with signicant problems in collecting empirical evidence that is undistorted
by the guiding theoretical framework. Nevertheless, such diculties are by no means
unique to critical research. Positivist and interpretive research are both prone to
systematic distortion through unconscious selectivity. For example, ethnographic
researchers are often faced with insurmountable challenges in collating the huge
richness of available empirical material without imposing a ltering system (Alves-
son and Deetz, 2000). It is therefore inevitable that the pre-existing mental models
of researchers will inuence the reported ndings. What researchers give attention
to is shaped by what they look for. From this perspective, theorizing and empirical
research are essential parts of the same project.
In evaluating the contribution of critical research, it is important to remem-
ber that all research methodologies possess limitations and impose distortions. It is
therefore important that insights are gained from dierent theoretical perspectives.
In social science, dierent theories represent dierent ways of seeing. Rather than
arguing that one research methodology is better than another, it is perhaps more
useful to understand dierent theories as dierent lenses that accentuate dierent
aspects of reality. The choice of theory therefore depends upon what the researcher
wants to pay attention to. The construction management community has to date
neglected critical theory and therefore underplayed the importance of vested in-
terests and shaping ideologies. It is not however advocated that everybody should
suddenly adopt critical theory. The argument in favor of critical research should be
coupled with an overriding commitment to methodological pluralism.
Returning to the theme of empirical evidence, it is notable that the majority of
the arguments presented in this paper concern the selectivity of the literature. It
is a matter of fact that the conventional discourse on lean construction ignores the
extensive critical literature on lean methods. The argument regarding the operation
of vested interests and the underlying inuence of managerial ideology is presented
as one possible explanation of why the existing literature is so highly selective.
Others are welcome to provide alternative explanations, but the facts of the case
cannot be ignored. Given the signicant amount of public funding that supports the
propagation of best practice, it is pertinent to ask where the onus of proof should
lie. To criticize critical research for relying too much on rhetoric and not enough on
January 23, 2002 17:30 WSPC/177-JCR 00011
Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 161
evidence is to duplicate exactly the argument directed at the best practice literature
on lean construction. Nevertheless, such reminders of the dangers of engaging solely
in rhetorical argument are important. What is ultimately required is an appropriate
balance between critical orientation and a sensitive interest in empirical research.
Too much of the former leads to elitism and too much of the latter limits researchers
to the local and the trivial (Alvesson and Deetz, 2000).
8.6. Elitism
Perhaps the most dicult counter-criticism to deal with is the accusation that
critical research is elitist. Some feel uncomfortable with the right of researchers to
seek to inuence reality by the propagation of a critical argument. The trouble with
this line of argument is that it could equally be applied to those that propagate the
conventional discourse on lean construction. It is pertinent to repeat that critical
research is at least self-conscious and open in its one-sidedness. Nevertheless, there is
undeniably a central contradiction to a critical position that assumes weakness in the
reasoning powers of the very people who it hopes to empower. Critical approaches
also tend too often to see dominant interest groups as coherent entities that act
The danger of conceptualising dominant interest groups as singular entities
should be a constant concern to critical researchers. If such groups are crystalized too
rigidly then critical thinking may indeed regress to old-fashioned structural Marx-
ism. Elite groups have always been much more open to new arrivals than Marxists
like to admit. It is also important to recognize that elite groups may have inter-
nalized ideologies that act against their own interests (Alvesson and Deetz, 2000).
For example, the continued propagation of regressive HRM approaches in the con-
struction industry will ultimately reduce sustainability and long-term protability.
In this way, dominant interest groups may also derive benet from critical research.
The criticism of elitism is perhaps best countered by an active policy of engaging
with practicing managers whilst avoiding directive statements of what they should
do. It is clearly also important that critical researchers remain self-conscious of
their adopted theoretical position and the associated assumptions. It is especially
important to make clear that no monopoly is claimed on the truth and to recognize
the need for empirical research coupled with methodological pluralism. The author
makes a point of ending critical seminars with the caveat: But whatever you do,
dont believe what I tell you. The emphasis should always be placed on empowering
members of the audience to make up their own minds. This is in direct contrast to
those who advocate prescriptive models of lean construction whilst seeking to stie
critical debate.
9. Conclusion
There is signicant evidence to suggest that the UK construction industry pos-
sesses an institutionalized regressive culture of HRM, despite notable exceptions.
January 23, 2002 17:30 WSPC/177-JCR 00011
162 S. D. Green
This acts as a powerful disincentive to the young, intelligent and creative people
that the industry so badly needs. Lean construction has been accepted as an es-
sential element of best practice despite widespread concerns regarding the HRM
implications of lean methods. The emphasis of lean thinking on eliminating waste
and improving eciency makes it easy to absorb into the best practice agenda
because it conforms to the dominant way of thinking. New ideas are apparently
only accepted as best practice if they reect the construction industrys ingrained
culture of hard HRM. There is seemingly no demand for ideas that challenge the
existing worldviews of industry leaders. The champions of best practice are seem-
ingly programmed to consider only the narrow domain of instrumental rationality.
Even supposedly enlightened practices such as teamworking, partnering and total
quality management are ultimately judged in terms of their contribution to cost
eciency. The dominant industry recipe of HRM will inevitably shape the way
that lean methods are implemented. Unless this issue is tackled explicitly, the im-
plementation of lean construction will continue to reinforce the industrys dominant
culture of command and control. The ultimate victim will be the sustainability of
the construction industry and its long-term capacity to serve the needs of the UK
economy and society.
Notwithstanding the above, it is recognized that there are many within the
construction management research community that feel uncomfortable with the
validity of critical contributions. Some of the common counter-criticisms oered by
the advocates of lean construction have been acknowledged and the contribution
to knowledge has been defended. There is a tendency to suppress critical work on
the basis that it lacks empirical evidence and is one-sided in its argument. The fact
that these standards do not seemingly apply to the prescriptive literature on lean
construction reinforces the contention that management research is subject to an
ideological ltering system. Whilst this ltering system is undoubtedly subconscious,
it is nevertheless powerful.
It is valid and important to criticize the methodology of critical research. How-
ever, it must also be recognized that there are methodological limitations associated
with all research paradigms. The task of gathering empirical evidence undistorted by
ideological frameworks is extremely problematic. To make explicit the assumptions
associated with dierent methodologies is of central importance to good research.
An understanding of the assumptions and limitations of critical research is therefore
essential in the greater cause of methodological reexivity. Nevertheless, it must also
be recognized that there are a number of theoretical schisms within critical man-
agement studies that are not easily papered over. Signicant conicts exist between
structural Marxists and critical postmodernists. There is a further stark line of ten-
sion between those that advocate engagement with practising managers and those
that see the discipline of management as a lost cause beyond redemption. The per-
sonal orientation of the author favours the postmodernist theme coupled with a
policy of active engagement. Such a position is by no means beyond criticism. As a
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Human Resource Management Implications of Lean Construction 163
nal comment, it is useful to cite Burrell (2001), who has likened critical work to
an open wound long may it fester.
10. Acknowledgments
An earlier version of the rst part of this paper was presented at the 2000 Con-
ference of the International Group for Lean Construction held in Brighton, UK.
The second part addresses some of the counter-criticisms kindly oered by the con-
ference participants. Some of these criticisms were repeated and reinforced by the
anonymous referees in response to the initial draft submitted to this journal. This
nal version is much improved as a result of their comments.
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