Lowlands sociotechnical design theory and lean production

Jac Christis, Erik Soepenberg

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    Lean Production (LP) can be regarded as a design approach in search of a theoretical foundation. In this paper we show that Lowlands’ Sociotechnical Design Theory (STSL) could function as such a foundation. To reach this goal, we first describe STSL as a system theoretical reformulation of Original Sociotechnical Theory (OSTS). Then, we introduce the Toyota Production System as the origin of LP and the challenge it poses for the academic field of organization design. This academic field should (1) assess LP’s success, (2) generalize it by embedding it in more abstract concepts and theories in order to be able to (3) re-specify it for different manufacturing and non-manufacturing contexts. Next, we give an exposition of STSL as a structural design approach based on developments in system theory. At last, we reformulate lean production in STSL terms and so show that LP is a subcase within the more general theory of STSL. We discuss the merits of both approaches and clarify some misunderstandings of lean both outside and inside the lean community. Embedding LP in the more general language of STSL should enable us to discover similarities and differences, to start a process of mutual learning, to integrate diverse design approaches in a theory of organizational design and to add content to redesign proposals of for example the health care system as proposed by Porter and Teisberg (2006) and Christensen et al. (2009). We quote extensively from the lean literature (to convince our sociotechnical friends) and embed both STSL and LP in the broader literature on organization design. We hope this adds a new perspective to the one given in the Operations Management literature on LP. Again, mutual learning is the goal.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationCo-creating humane and innovative communities of work
    Subtitle of host publicationevolutions in the practice of socio-technical system design
    EditorsBernard J. Mohr, Pierre van Amelsvoort
    Place of PublicationPortland
    PublisherGlobal STS-D Network Press
    Number of pages18
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


    • lean production
    • sociotechnical theories


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