Friday, June 5, 2009

Taylorism - revisited

Well folks, as a special treat I have decided to revisit the first ever post that went up on this blog all the way back in January of 2007, I have slightly ammended a few sentances here and there but the post is for the most part identical.

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 enjoy looking 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 importantly aiming to reduce the “click distance” from place to place, and also how much space each item is allocated (most used function = most space allocated)

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, beauty 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 (see this really was written in 2007) that will navigate you through simply laid out menus, which themselves never leave the user more than 4 clicks (click distance) away from the media they want to access.
- Enter Taylor -
We are now in an era where the quest is to create the most efficient way of using our technology, and this pursuit of efficiency can be attributed in a large part to one man. 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 all 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 than 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, it would seem that Taylor wasn’t all that interested in being politically correct.
“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."
Where's the incentive?
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” (I have seen this in action, and I would guess that anyone who has worked in a summer job as a student has either seen this loafing in action, or fully taken part)
This is due to the fact that people tend to be inherently lazy unless motivated by some factor (not always money) to be otherwise, and, when paid 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 I have witnessed the problem posed by lack of incentives first hand, Taylor from what I can see was entirely correct. For instance in this store we knew that if we just worked a little faster than the mentally dim guy who turned up about only half of his allotted days we’d be safe in our jobs.
Here a condition existed in which striving for to be the best did not exist, instead people strived to be slightly more acceptable than the worst.
The simple fact is that in absence of an appropriate incentive staff will tend 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. Although at first giving workers time off every hour might seem counterproductive it was found that when tested scientifically, a ten minute break for every hour worked would increase productivity and efficiency hugely, and as an added bonus also led to happier workers.
Taylor undertook these studies in the 1930s and these were seen as pioneering findings for the progression of the industrial revolution, and brought with them 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 the numbers speak for themselves.
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.
- Well there you go that was my first ever post. I recently received a comment from a reader that said the following: 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.

I guess I do mostly agree with what the reader says, Taylor did have a rather cynical view of workers, and the do as I say method does indeed throttle innovation. Firstly I suppose I am trying to express the business value of what his theories brought about, NOT whether his theories left a warm fuzzy feeling in the hearts of the workers. I suppose it is worth noting that when Taylor came up with these theories England was a major manufacturing nation, and of course in more recent time the more developed countries have seen their manufacturing industries move to the likes of China etc.

Taylorism in its raw form is obviously not applicable to some of the new more creative industries in operation in the western world – However as unpalatable as it may be, for manufacturing jobs this approach is probably as close to perfect as you are going to get. Mining, sewing pieces of fabric together, operations robots that make cars, packaging things etc etc do not require high levels of innovation from staff, Taylorism offered staff much higher wages than competitors could offer, and much better working conditions than competitors could offer, while making much greater profits than the competitors. And although his methods do not result in a workers paradise, all things are relative.

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