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Perfected by Henry Ford, Taylorism was developed in the early 20th Century and was a revolutionary outlook on scientific management. Its aim was to make the workplace a science, taking all control away from the worker and placing total power in the hands of management. By observing workers behaviour and how long it was taking for tasks to be completed he believed he could say how much an average worker could produce under optimum conditions. Using this he devised a means of detailing a division of labour in time-and-motion studies and a wage system based on performance. At the time and throughout the last century Taylorism was and has been “the only” way to manage, but is it now outdated and irrelevant. I hope to be able to provide some of the arguments for and against this viewpoint and give examples of Taylorism.
First, what exactly is Taylorism? Simply Taylorism is the breaking down of the production process into simple, menial tasks to the extent that even the most unskilled worker can be efficient. He researched these methods knowing that management lacked the knowledge to maximise production and that workers were not efficient.
Taylor spoke about rewarding good men i.e. good employees, with higher pay for completing tasks or working harder. He called for scoring and ranking workers, thus posing the argument: how can one “compare” someone who is really good at a given task against someone who is good at another task? The two individuals may well be very good at what they do; however, it quite often requires a mix of these talents to produce a quality product or service. Taylor also aimed to transfer the control of the work process away from the individual worker and instead have the work performed in a way that is detailed by management who train the worker and share all the responsibilities.
He used pig-iron handlers during the American-Spanish war to test his theories. He picked the four best workers and, in exchange for a higher wage, asked them to work under a managers orders. The manager had complete control, telling them when they could have a break, when to pick up more iron, how much to lift etc. The experiment was a resounding success; with one man Schmidt working at a constant 47.5 tonnes a day. This was used to show that Taylorism could work. However it could be argued that the experiment was fixed as it used workers who were “mentally sluggish” and therefore, by their nature, were more likely to follow orders than to think for themselves.
Nevertheless Taylorism became the standard for businesses worldwide and this led to a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute for standardized factories, machines and the de-humanising of men and women. A man named Braverman argued in his book in the 70’s that because of Taylor and Ford, more and more jobs became and are becoming deskilled and de-humanised and the thought processes are being taken over by managers and programmed into machines (Braverman 1974). This raises a very important point about Taylorism; it makes processes so precise and repetitive that humans are being turned into machines. In this state as machines, humans are very easy to control and so it could be argued that Taylorism, whilst being effective as a production method, is also designed to control the workforce and thus highly skilled workers threaten labour control.
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Such early 20th century thought is being practised not only in business, but in the schools as well where students, like workers, are be scored and ranked. Now we have moved to a system where this ranking and grading of students and schools is of such importance that they are no longer run by teachers, but managed by managers to improve efficiency. Whilst not being a strict example of Taylorism, it shows how Taylors’ ideas have changed the way people think in that people now assume anything and everything can be ranked. Whilst on the subject of culture changes that have been influenced by Taylor, it can be argued that Taylorism has led to gender differences. Women have been, at least they were, categorized into certain jobs; mainly clerical and secretarial. This may not be as true today with many high-powered businesswomen in the world but, especially in the 60’s, this was true.
Taylorism is scientific management but how scientific is it? In Websters’ book there is a case where a businessman complained about how slow his secretary worked and asked, “How many times a minute should she be able to open and close a file drawer?” The workers handbook’s answer would be “Exactly 25 times.” Times for other open and close operations would be .04 minutes for opening and closing a folder, and .026 minutes for opening a standard centre desk drawer (Webster, J 1990). Another example of the scientific nature of Taylorism can be seen in UPS, the parcel company. Management have said that workers should walk at 3ft per second, packages should be carried under the left arm and that drivers should step into the van with their right foot first whilst holding the keys in the middle finger of the right hand. These are two classic and blatant time-and-motion pigeonholing that leads to the de-humanizing of the worker.
This pigeonholing can be classically seen in some of today’s big business, especially in fast-food chains. McDonalds, the most classically discussed example, where there is absolutely no autonomy for the worker; they have no option about what to do. Machines are set to cook quarter-pounders in 107 seconds and fries in 150 seconds. Guns exist that put exactly the same amount of sauce in each burger and fill the drinks to the right level. All the worker has to do is put it together and place in a bag. Even the bagging process is Taylorised; workers must place the goods in the bag in the correct order. Ritzer sees McDonalds as a paradigm of efficiency that has led to a consumer being able to go into any McDonalds in the world and expect the same service and the same product.
This very tedious monotonous work has very little job satisfaction and so to keep the worker motivated McDonalds have used Taylors’ idea about incentives. McDonalds have a “star system” which rewards hard working individuals with stars. These stars are worn on the name badge to show the consumer that they are a noted worker. More importantly it develops a friendly rivalry within the store as workers compete to win stars. This leads to more productive and efficient workers. Some workers can take this to extremes however. A friend of mine started in McDonalds and almost straight away was working up to two hours overtime on closing shifts. He earned his stars very quickly as well as employee of the month two months in a row and within 8 months was promoted to floor manager. This is, in my view, a slightly extreme case as he is naturally a hard worker but shows how hard work is rewarded in McDonalds. The efficiency of McDonalds and its ability to retain workers has made it a very successful multinational company.
Leidner argues in his book that the drive for efficiency within McDonalds has led to inefficiency for the consumer as it turns them into “involuntary unpaid labour” because they have to queue for the food, clear their own rubbish away etc. For McDonalds to be as efficient as it is, it must offer a very restricted menu so that deliveries and production can be streamlined. This leads to a loss for the consumer who can only expect a very small choice from McDonalds. In the beginning this may have been a problem but now people go to McDonalds and expect a burger, fries and a drink which are the same every time.
Despite these critiques of Taylorism there are authors who believe that Taylorism is as relevant today as it ever was. Taksa argues in her 1992 article that Taylor and his ideas are still useful in resolving today’s management issues especially as firms are larger these days. The limiting of verbal exchange due to written instructions means that the teaching mangers are also under as much control as the workers from the planning group (Taksa,1992). This is especially useful in the large firms of today where middle management can be very large and therefore they must be put under the same controls as the workers.
Many firms however are extremely efficient and successful without adopting Taylorist methods. It can be argued that Taylorism is not suitable for every type of business. An example of this is Dixons, where I used to work, where if any type of technical control would greatly hinder the sales of goods and insurance. The salesperson must have the freedom to react to the customers situation and what they say. There would be no way of, for example, telling sales staff that this type of person must have this product or that the sale must be complete in x minutes. It would be impossible to implement as, unlike McDonalds, every customer is different with different needs and without talking these needs cannot be ascertained to result in the sale of a product. Even shops are individual, while common theme run from shop to shop, where products are placed and how they are displayed is up to the mangers discretion and not controlled by main management.
So to conclude; Taylorism is a very restrictive practise which leads to the de-humanising of the worker and complete management control. However it is an extremely efficient and productive system. I would say that in certain business environments, like McDonalds, it is the only way to manage that would produce effective results. However nowadays individuals require job satisfaction out of their roles and to that end Taylorism is outdated as it allows no sort of autonomy and thus make working very dull. To that end I cannot conclude either way; Taylorism is very effective in the food sector where customers are indistinguishable from each other but would be highly ineffective once individuals needs must be catered for.
Braverman, H.: Labour And Monopoly Capital: The Degradation Of Work In The 20th Century, 1974. Monthly Review Press, NY
Leidner, R: Fast Food, Fast Talk, 1993. University Of California Press
Ritzer, G: The McDonaldisation Of Society, 1993. Pine Forge Press
Taksa, L: Scientific Management: Technique Or Cultural Ideology?.
Webster, J: Office Automation, 1990. Harvester Wheatsheaf