Managerial culture and company survival : technological change and output-mix optimisation at Fiat, 1960-1987
This dissertation contributes to the debate on the decline and transformation of mass production in the 1970s and 1980s by analysing the case of the Italian car manufacturer Fiat. In particular, the thesis addresses the question whether the company's restructuring led to a discontinuity in management. The established literature on Fiat depicts the company as one of the first movers in the development of flexible manufacturing systems, and traces the move towards flexible mass production back to the late 1970s. In doing so, the literature implies a discontinuity between the group of managers who had developed Fordist production at Fiat in the 1950s and 1960s and the set of managers who gradually came to dominate the company after 1973. Crucially, the established literature on Fiat is locked in a circular argument. Firstly, it explains the deployment of robotics as a move in the quest for production flexibility, and then uses the deployment of robotics as compelling evidence that the Fiat production setting during the 1980s was flexible. This dissertation breaks this circularity by testing the flexibility of Fiat production system during the 1980s against an independent variable, namely the rate of capacity utilisation of the production lines. This dissertation demonstrates that during the 1980s, Fiat production remained inflexible. It also shows that Fiat did not maximise flexibility because the output-mix optimisation strategy pursued by the management did not require the maximisation of flexibility. The new contribution of the thesis to the international literature emerges from three key elements. Firstly, the thesis departs from common wisdom by showing that the managerial culture underpinning the restructuring of the company and its recovery from the crisis of the 1970s was essentially "Fordist". Secondly, the thesis investigates flexibility by analysing the behaviour of the utilisation rate of both robotised and traditional lines. The methodology has been implemented for the first time, thanks to a set of unpublished data discovered during extensive fieldwork in the Fiat Archives, and is based on the assumption that the main drive for investment in flexible manufacturing systems is the stabilisation of the utilization of production lines at about the optimal rate. Finally, the thesis underlines the complex relationship between technological change, product development and output-mix optimisation, which has been often overlooked by the post-Fordism debate.