Monday, March 14, 2005

Taylorism by Chris Reed

Its Monday morning and after spending Thursday, Friday and part of Saturday with the flu, I’m now in a position to post some more things to the blog. One of the reasons to create this online piece of work, is to show examples of work from the Vermont Commons School. Chris Reed’s paper on Taylorism was written for his Global Studies II class. (His paper does contain several footnotes and a bibliography. However, I was unable to cut and past them to the blog. Please send me an e-mail and I will forward you a copy that includes this missing information if you need it.)

The Father of Scientific Management: Frederick W. Taylor and Taylorism by Chris Reed

Frederick Winslow Taylor founded the system of workplace regulation and division known as Taylorism in the late 1800s. As the words inscribed upon his gravestone state, he was the father of scientific management. His most significant achievements to the world are recorded in his published volume The Principles of Scientific Management; an intellectual work that details a new type of workplace designed around the sole goal of ultimate efficiency. In its most essential form, scientific management is the idea that system of labor may be broken down and analyzed mathematically, with the ultimate goal being a higher efficiency and profit yield.

As a result of this examination, many revolutionary new concepts became distributed for the first time in Taylor’s Principles. The separation of administrative office space from the production area was exercised for the first time due to Taylor’s calculations of efficiency. Payment by output rather than a flat rate and generally the most comprehensive study of the labor system to date could be found in this radical volume. The Principles of Scientific Management was translated into several languages, giving his ideas an influence around the world . To this day, Taylorist technique and this time in American history is taught in classrooms around the world, because many of the ideals of a scientifically managed workplace hold perpetually true; Peter Drucker has called Taylor’s book perhaps “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.”

Perhaps the most significant and hotly debated ideal employed by Taylorism was the reduction of skilled workers, artisans, and tradesmen to perform only a simple and menial job, often extremely repetitive requiring no thought. In a workplace based on Taylorist ideology, men were seen as cogs in a great machine that must be carefully regulated and maintain but one critical piece of the entire process. This reduction to a simple, repetitive and tedious task concerned many labor union leaders and middle managers alike, whose jobs it would eliminate in the interest of greater efficiency and profits as they became unnecessary. Many times these fears were confirmed; in an example at Simonds roller bearings company, who hired Taylor during his days as a consultant, 120 workers were replaced with 35 as the jobs of these middle managers became unnecessary. This attracted further negative attention from labor unions and those who wished to defend these managers.

Taylor, however, felt he was misunderstood when he was seen responsible for a period of particularly vicious searching for efficiency in the workplace. In accordance with the ideals set forth by Principles, managers and administrators would often “stalk their workers with stopwatches,” starting and stopping constantly to measure their output vs. time, calculating their efficiency. Labor union zealots would often oppose Taylor, seeing only that men were made to perform less skilled jobs and to work harder for what they earned, even if those earnings were now dependent on work merit: “…unions hostile to Taylor…said his system overworked and enslaved the men; denied them a voice; reduced skilled mechanics to common laborers; left no room for the average man, but only the superhumanly strong.”

This argument remains blind to some of the detailed provided by Taylorites. “…What did scientific management really strip from work?” they asked. “Nothing…on the contrary, it brought workers up, into better jobs…[Taylor] told later of a man who came to America on the first day of the new century, worked as a laborer at fifteen cents an hour, and moved up through a succession of jobs to become foreman and head of the whole department.” Many believed such success stories were only possible with a system of labor like Taylor’s because it allowed workers to be paid by, and advance as, a result of their dedication and hard work.
Taylorism even came under attack by a committee appointed by the US Congress. Hearings proceeded to determine the validity of the continuance of the application of Taylorist technique in the workplace. This “inquisition” as Kanigel puts it, lasted over six weeks and consisted of labor unions, congressmen, and other concerned political and business figures. Taylor was confronted by his enemies over issues such as workers rights under his system, the legitimacy of reducing skilled jobs to unskilled labor, the increased reliance on mechanization, and the exhaustion and cutthroat nature that was instilled in workers laboring under this system.
Some specific main opponents to the application of Taylorism and scientific management in the workplace and even to Taylor himself were Congressman William Bauchop Wilson, who was “from the coal mines of central Pennsylvania…the [Congressional] committee chairman, a former union organizer.” Fellow congressman John Q. Tilson also attacked Taylor and his ideas when serving alongside Wilson on the House Committee to Investigate the Taylor and Other Systems of Shop Management. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor for many years, even wrote slanderous stories in the Washington Post to damn Taylor and what he stood for. Having so many fervent enemies was not something that Taylor had been accustomed to, and as soon as he departed the hearings, defeated and depressed, he left with his wife on a cruise in the Mediterranean. He was dead within three years.

Some modern historians still see Taylor as an opponent to workers’ rights and a contributor to the divide between the privileged and underprivileged in American society. Howard Zinn remarks that Taylor’s contributions to labor systems were based solely with the purpose to “increase production and profits” and that “’scientific management’…could now control every detail of the worker’s energy and time in the factory.” In any case, Taylor himself notes in his opening remarks in his Principles: “The principle object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer…” and adds obligatorily that this should also be “…coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.”

Frederick Taylor’s life gives us a look into his knowledge and obsession with scientific management, the workplace, and efficiency analysis of labor systems. He was born March 20, 1865 in Philadelphia to a liberal and affluent family. His father was a Princeton graduate, and as a child, Taylor was educated in choice private schools. At age 25, Taylor graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. The degree he received here would have been enough to enter at an administrative level into the industrial workforce; however, he took a job as a common laborer at Midvale Steel Company. He wanted to gain an understanding of the way corporations worked at the time to better analyze the processes that occurred and what could change for better efficiency. From the position of this common laborer, Taylor rose up shortly as he excelled through the ranks on the production floor, and later, as a manager and chairman of the company.

Throughout this period of self-education and gaining an understanding of the workplace, Taylor showed a constant obsession with finding the most efficient way of getting any task done. He would often time himself, calculating his own efficiency and how this affected company profits. “’I never found Mr. Taylor in any period of relaxation,’ a colleague once said. ‘Even when we were sitting still there was always something to study, consider or plan.’” This helped him develop his theory of paying the worker, rather than the job, based on their relative productivity and overall efficiency. He became sure that labor unions would no longer be necessary if this system were to be employed exclusively, because workers would have no one to blame except themselves for poor wages or benefits if they were to be paid based on their output. It should, he argued, be their own responsibility to make sure that their output was high enough to earn the wages they desired.

Taylor worked as a consultant for industries looking to bring their workplace to the next generation of efficiency and increase their profits. He mainly worked with eastern industrial factories such as steel and iron casting facilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. He traveled throughout the states and worked with management to transform the organization and division of the workplace to his own ideals, then calculated the heightened profits from before.

Taylor faced various stresses toward the end of his life. His wife suffered severe illness, which strained Taylor’s ability to travel as a consultant or speaker. He often dealt with depression over the misunderstanding he perceived toward himself by the embittered masses of laborers that stood against him and his ideologies. While on the road for a speaking tour, Taylor became ill with influenza. He spent his 59th birthday in a hospital and died the next day, in 1915. His achievements are surmised on his gravestone, proclaiming him to be the “father of scientific management”.

The United States at the turn of the 19th century was ready for a breakthrough in labor practices. The corporations of the nation were facing a higher and higher percentage of untrained and uneducated European laborers on their assembly lines. Many could not speak English well, and could only perform a task that could be explained to them in simple terms. According to Zinn, this allowed factories adopting the policies and ideologies of Taylorism to ultimately exploit these immigrants: “With immigrants a larger proportion of the labor force (in the Carnegie plants of Allegheny County in 1907, of the 14,359 common laborers, 11,694 were Eastern Europeans), Taylorism, with its simplified unskilled jobs, became more feasible.” The American automotive industry was the first to embrace Taylor’s ideas. Relying heavily upon the recent influx of unskilled and untrained immigrants that would work industrial jobs with little compensation in pay or benefits, Ford motors based all of their corporate policies on Taylorist ideals and concentrated on increasing efficiency to make more profits. In the years 1913-14, the Corporation made over 30 million dollars in sheer profits. This kind of super yield was only made possible through rigorous and systematic examination of the methods of profit in the industry, and this approach was taken by consultation with Taylor’s works.

Taylorism and scientific management are terms that are almost unheard of in today’s realm of business management, yet they are perpetually relevant and employed in nearly every modern workplace and in contemporary administration and management technique.
Many of Taylor’s ideas have become standard in many industries, and we fail to regard them as anything but such. For example, the separation of administrative “headquarters” and production space is now common practice in nearly all corporations throughout the global marketplace. Before 1900, this separation was almost unheard of. The physical separation of these two disparate tasks leads to the ultimate specialization in each; ie, factory workers, whose merit lies in their strength and mental endurance, shall not play any role where they must lay pen to paper. This job was to be left to specialists trained in the field of keeping papers and files, just as the men who soldered and drilled in factories were trained in their own respective field.
An example of this separation between office and factory space is readily apparent upon an analysis of the Subaru motor corporation. Three offices in Japan employing about 1,500 workers never hear a rivet driven through metal nor smell the fumes of fresh paint on car chassis. However, miles away, 12,200 employees may very well never send a letter nor type a document at a computer; specialized inter-department communications teams are responsible for this coordination. The Subaru example is a modern day application of Taylorist ideals on a massive scale.

The “piecework” wage labor system of paying the person for their output rather than an hourly rate for just simply performing a job also has been adapted and is still in use in many industries. The automotive industry, as always, remains a prime example of scientific management at work. Today, workers on assembly lines in plants throughout the world make money based on a flat rate of output. Even automotive service technicians receive a flat rate, based on a preset amount of earnings per specific job taken. One service technician remarked, “If the system were to remain fair at all times, a flat rate would be the obvious choice for everybody’s sake. However, because those with means of production (car dealers) control the preset earnings, technicians fail to have a voice to ensure the equality of opportunity and wages.”

In addition to Taylor’s intellectual work still apparent in the organization of the workplace, it also gave birth to many new strategies and approaches to resource management within a company. As soon as managers could see that Taylor’s obsession with the “one best way” to do any task brought them increased efficiency (and ultimately yielded higher profits), they began to create their own theories. As time and technology changed, necessary evolution in scientific management have occurred, post mortem for Taylor. The New Manager’s Starter Kit: Essential Tools to Doing the Job Right by Robert Crittendon is an ambitiously-titled book with an equally ambitious goal: it dictates how one should manage personnel resources in the office, including higher management. Even in the seemingly straightforward explanations presented within, it is easy to see how scientific management and Taylor’s ideas are represented. “Routines are a good thing,” claims Crittendon. “Routines = unconscious competence.” In his detailed strategy for choosing who to hire, he disregards the fit of a position for a personality, but makes sure to note that it is important to “hire employees that complement your strengths and compensate your weaknesses.” This systematic approach to hiring personnel reflects Taylorist ideals. Finally, his list of “ten things employees want” is based on Taylorist beliefs, as it allows management to exploit the workers’ basic human desires for respect and a voice in the workplace in order to keep them performing their job without complication. In a book for administrators explaining a method of management called the “Taguchi” method, graphs and equations are included for the purpose of calculating efficiency and what dictates what factors may be changed to increase this efficiency and how it relates to profit.

Frederick Taylor’s contributions to the workplace of 1911 and of today are undeniable. Yet, there still remains obvious question as to whether this was a step of progress for the majority of laborers, who perform unskilled tasks and are reduced to a menial and tedious role in accordance with Taylorist ideals, or simply another way for the rich to further separate themselves from the poor of America. Labor union leaders and the middle managers who lost their jobs when Taylor arrived as a consultant would claim that he was a savage, obsessed man that was only bringing about a further imbalance in the socioeconomic status of the American population. Taylorites would say the opposite of this state, claiming that Taylorism could provide the opportunities for working men and women to pull themselves to jobs of higher status simply by displaying fervency when on the job.

In this we see the heart of a debate that continues to rage on today. Where must the obsession with efficiency end in the interest of human laborers’ health and wellbeing? Is it worth it to downsize middle management from over 100 to 35 to earn that much more in profits that year? Taylor spent his entire life consumed with his passion to find the one best way of doing anything. In Taylor’s mind, his theories and strategies should have increased the success and prosperity of every worker, administrator and laborer alike. However, most feel that it was not so, and today we still face the same problem of the gap between those that have the means of production, and those that must assume a role subservient to them. By employing scientific management in the workplace, he may have found the most efficient and profitable manner of performing any task, but was it the best? How may we all agree on what is “best” for every human? This search shall remain in progress, over a century after the death of this “industrial messiah”, for society never stops its own progress, and therefore the “one best way” changes every day.


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