22 December 2005

Seeing Tailorism Clearly in 1856

In 1911, Fredrick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management. One of his main concepts was that "to increase production, managers must take control of the process." Thus the method of strictly defined assembly-line work was firmly established.

As the above link explains, "This involved observing workers meticulously, analyzing each step in terms of time spent and energy expended, and using the results to determine the best method for each task. This standard method would be required of every worker, with scaled piecework rates providing incentives for higher output."

Interestingly, 55 years prior to Taylor's opus horribilus, Scientific American magazine had this to say:

"The division of labor, though it may bring to perfection the production of a
country up to a certain point, is most deleterious in its effects upon the
producers. To make pins to the best advantage, it may answer for a time to
divide the operation into 20 parts. Let each man concentrate the whole
of his attention on the one simple work, for instance, of learning to make
pin heads, and on this ever let his time be consumed. It is astonishing the
perfection and rapidity which we will acquire in performing the operation. But
what is the result on the man? His powers of mind will dwindle, and his head
becomes, for all practical purposes, after a number of generations, no larger
than that of one of the pins he makes. He ceases to be a man, and becomes a mere
tool." - From Scientific American, January 1856

And what's one of the big buzzwords in management circles these days? Process! To those who continue to insist that production improvements brought about by a focus on process justify the damage done to the individuals who actually do the work, I can only shake my head. Well, I can also respond with alternatives, but I also certainly shake my head.

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