Of Machines and Men

Posted: January 21, 2010 in History, Work

The story of Frederick Winslow Taylor and how humans came to be treated like machines.

There are times during my shifts at Domino’s Pizza when I can almost feel him breathing down my neck. It is just my imagination, of course. He’s been dead for almost 100 years. Yet his influence remains so strong that I can feel his legacy trapping me in his narrow ideology. “Piss off Fred,” I feel like saying.

I am not alone in this. If you have ever had a job then you have probably met him too. If you have worked in a factory, a call centre, a restaurant or even an office then you have almost certainly experienced the legacy of a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor, and his enduring idea of scientific management.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was an American engineer who devoted his life to making industry efficient. Born in 1856, Taylor grew up during a time when machines were on the rise. A popular folktale of the day told the story of John Henry, a railroad worker who won a race against a steam powered hammer, only to die with his hammer in his hand. The message seems pretty clear: you can give your best, but machines always win in the end.

Taylor was fascinated with the efficiency of machines. He believed that if factory workers were managed in the same way that a worker operates a machine – with technical precision – then a business could dramatically improve its efficiency.

The application of his ideas met with outstanding results. In 1881, Taylor managed to cut the number of workers at the Bethlehem Steel Works from 500 to 140, while increasing output by 200%! But while his management innovations often met with success, there was an agenda with Taylor that sought to undermine the human element of work.

In Herd, Mark Earls describes how Tayor was concerned with “reducing the variable human element of factory work.” He saw humans as unpredictable, lazy, and much less reliable than machines. Taylor used scientific methods to specify tasks for each individual, so that they could work with the same efficiency as machines.

Taylor’s ‘scientific’ method – outlined in Principles of Scientific Management – included the following key principles:

  1. Breaking down the work of employees into specific tasks, according to precise instructions.
  2. The development – through scientific means – of a ‘best-practise’ instruction for each person’s job.
  3. The recruitment, training and development of workers to fit the job specified, rather than allowing workers to choose their jobs and training.
  4. Functions are more important than people. Clerks should monitor, report and control the performance of tasks.

Through Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor laid the groundwork for the technocratic management style which dominates the world today. Efficiency is the primary goal, and workers must strive to achieve this. Factory workers once decided how to manage work among themselves. Taylor’s philosophy replaced this with a management – worker monologue.

I often make mistakes at Domino’s Pizza. I put the wrong toppings on without thinking. Ten minutes later, when the pizza is cooked, I hear the Assistant Manager shout out – “Who made this pizza?” It was the same story in all my other jobs – call centre, restaurant etc. I used to think it was because I am absent-minded, but now I believe there’s more to it.

Mark Earls believes that one of the most enduring delusions of Taylor’s management innovation is “the goal of machine-like efficiency – and the possibility that it can be achieved.” There is a persisting belief that workers can and should be as fast, efficient and accurate as a machine. Mistakes are generally not tolerated.

Mistakes are uncomfortable reminders of how completely unlike machines humans actually are. This is especially so in a job which involves doing the same thing over and over again. A machine can perform the same task – say, putting toppings on a pizza – a thousand times without making a mistake. Humans on the other hand tend to get bored, become distracted, or go insane.

It is unsurprising that Taylor’s ideas were highly influential on industrialists like Henry Ford. The father of modern assembly lines, Ford once complained that “every time I ask for a pair of hands it comes with a brain attached”. What Ford really wanted was a robot.

It seems obvious to us that humans are not like machines, and that the idea of basing a management ‘science’ on such a tenet is absurd. Yet this assumption continues to dominate working life. From offices to factories, Taylor’s emphasis on efficiency traps the hapless workers of the world on a daily basis.

It seems strange that so many of us – whether we are workers or managers – are trapped in the ideas of a man who lived over a hundred years ago. The first step to overcoming this is to recognise the falsity of the ideas. The next step is to resist behaviour which has been created by these ideas.

If you are a factory/office worker, and you find yourself worrying about making mistakes, try to remember Frederick W. Taylor. I find that it really puts things into context. I realise that worrying about something which is inevitable – due to our nature – is absurd.

If you are a manager and you find yourself expecting your employees to behave in a machine-like way, do as above. Resist the urge to manage them ‘scientifically’ or to view them as pairs of hands that happen to have brains. Start treating people like humans and you might receive some surprising benefits. After all,  humans can do a lot of things that machines can’t.

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