Friday, January 26, 2007

Frederick Taylor: What a man

I was recently involved in helping design an eCommerce website that is being put forward for a grant proposal, during the process of designing the interface, I noticed that above all, even more than complaining about things, I have a huge tendency to look for the most efficient ways of doing things. My task in assisting in the site layout was to create an interface where the most functionality could be fit around minimal and optimal amount of actions and reducing the “click distance” from place to place, and also how much space each item is allocated (for e.g. why all buttons on a remote the same size when some are hardly ever used, most used = most space)

For me, the shining lights of the beauty of efficiency and simplicity have come from the works of Jonathan Ive. Mr Ive has won numerous awards for his product designs, based on their simplicity and ultimately, their levels of efficiency in one regard or another.
In the last decade the Englishman has brought you products such as the iMac, iPod and more recently the groundbreaking iPhone.
In terms of devices such as the iPod and iPhone, efficiency is measured as the amount of processes it takes to achieve your end product and their simplicity. (E.g. to send a message do I need to press one button of 4 different ones)
The modern iPod has five buttons that will navigate you through simply laid our menus, which themselves never leave the user more than 4 clicks (click distance) away from the media they want to access.

We are now in an era where the quest is to create the most efficient way of using our technology, however this is most certainly not a new endeavour. The end of the 19th century saw a push toward increasing the efficiency of industry and manufacturing, and at the forefront of this was a man named Frederick Taylor.
Taylor was born in 1856 and was a huge proponent of the industrial efficiency movement, and is widely acknowledged as the “father of scientific management.”
His theories improved the efficiency, output, profitability and quality of life for workers, and set the basis for the modern day manufacturing processes seen around us, and the reason why so many of our everyday consumables are relatively much cheaper than before his reforms were introduced.

He claimed that all industrial processes should be standardised and based on scientific research rather then more unreliable rules of thumb or anecdotal evidence, by finding this “one right way” efficiency would be increased, this was achieved by bringing in mechanisation and assembly lines in which jobs were broken down into their simplest aspects and standardised.
(Taylor was also the inventor of the “time – motion study” which breaks all the processes involved in a product down into seconds and allows accurate estimation of ideal output. I saw in a recent documentary that the modern day masters of this are Nike who measures their processes in terms of thousandths of seconds. 6.6 minutes is assigned to the production of each t-shirt, pay rate in Dominican Republic = 70c an hr = 8 c per t-shirt = 3/10ths of 1% of the retail price is labour costs!)

It was also of the utmost importance for appropriate worker must be assigned to each task

“A man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be
so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up
the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for
this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding
monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to
handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class
of work."

Linkage of wages to output was another key foundation on which his theory was based.
Taylor observed that people, especially in monotonous jobs, will tend to work at the slowest rate at which they will not be punished, a condition known as “loafing”
This is due to the fact that people are inherently lazy unless motivated to be otherwise, and, when payed the same people will tend to benchmark their productivity against that of the slowest worker.
I have worked in only one real job so far in my life and that was in Marks and Spencer, and the problem posed by lack of incentives is huge, Taylor from what I can see was entirely correct, for instance we knew that if we just worked a little faster than the mentally dim guy who turned up about half of his allotted days we’d be grand, a condition in which striving for to be the best does not exist, instead it is striving to be slightly more acceptable than the worst.
The simple fact is that in absence of incentive staff will do the least work they can do for the same amount of money.

Work breaks
Taylor was also one of the first advocators of regular breaks in the working period. Against what might seem common sense it was found that when tested scientifically, a ten minute break for every hour worked would increase productivity and efficiency hugely and also as a coincidence led to happier workers.
Taylor undertook these studies in the 1930s and was seen as a shining light for the progression of the industrial revolution bringing in a new era of critical and scientific thought on how things are done and how they can be improved for mutual benefit of management and employees alike.

The example that convinced me of the genius of Frederick Taylor was shown to me in a class I had last year and can be quite easily demonstrated by the following chart.
Taylor agreed to pay his staff far above what their peers were earning as long as they would unquestioningly abide by his new techniques, and as you can see it worked
Traditional way /Taylor’s way
Workers 500 /140
Output (tonnes) 16 /59
Wage per day $1.15 /$1.88

I do apologise to have kept you this long and I realise that the chances are that this interests none of you in the slightest, but I do still think its important to know that the products you use and the price you have paid for them are often influenced directly by the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the era of industrial improvement that he introduced over a century ago. It is important to know the principles behind scientific management so as they are not forgotten, as they have been at Marks & Spencer (I feel a lawsuit coming!). Lecture over. You may leave.


jedimasterbooboo said...

Well depending on the time and the international date line, it COULD have been the 27th where I was when this was posted. Happy anniversary.

Craig Bellamy said...

Thanks for your extensive analysis of Taylorism. I do believe that Taylor had a very cynical understanding of human beings and the Battery Hen mode of working is demeaning to workers. Workers cannot being new ideas and fresh insights to their workplace and a this rigid top-down structure throttles innovation and flexible and intelligent approaches to labour.

Ed said...

Well Craig, to be fair my analysis is far from "extensive" but thanks for your thanks!
You're right to say that various means of work practices are unfair to workers, or as you might say demeaning. But it is worth keeping in mind that certain jobs require little skill and brain process, as unappetizing as that thought may be.

Innovation and flexibility are rarely regarded as strengths on an assembly line that shifts coal, or makes cars, because, profit wise, a machine could do this for cheaper... you may not like it, but this is the reality for low skill jobs... machines can do it. As unappealing as it may be, a huge portion of jobs require no creativity, and instead reflect a need for cost effective top down management.

Alot of industries are emotionless, I can assure you that for example the US car companies are not motivated by the emotions of employees, with this in mind, it is worthwhile for workers to realise that if they cant compete, via Taylorism, with machines, they will lose out.

Taylorism is certainly not a romantic vision of how business is done, it is however the most frank and useful view of business you might ever gain.