This article presents a theory of routine politics of production, which was inductively developed based on a case study of 22 supplier factories in the USA, including in-depth interviews with 31 managers and 52 workers. All factories had implemented lean production. The findings show that (i) some managers prioritise the qualitative upgrading of organisational capabilities over quantitative work intensification, (ii) this includes objective forms of worker empowerment, and (iii) many workers resist or are hesitant about these forms of empowerment (while being committed to their work). The majority of workers from this convenience sample described either no work intensification under lean or ‘positive intensification’, which by their own assessment reduces monotony and/or makes the work more challenging. The first necessary condition for routine politics of production to obtain is that managers prioritise qualitative upgrading over quantitative effort levels. The second necessary condition is worker reticence or resistance toward managerial attempts to change routines.
The article eschews theories of control and consent in favour of a classical Marxist framework emphasising labour process contradictions. Managers face conflicting pressures between deskilling and upskilling labour. Workers develop a contradictory orientation of alienated commitment. They are committed to being productive workers, in an attempt to realise a purpose in response to their alienation. Yet, in another manifestation of their alienation, experiences of bad management result in scepticism toward management. They embrace their work and Fordist conceptions of efficiency, wanting to see their organisation succeed, yet they contest managerial attempts to upgrade routines, which they deem inefficient.