Hunting for productivity improvements

“The most important object of both the workman and the management should be the training and development of each individual in the establishment, so that he can do (at his fastest pace and with the maximum of efficiency) the highest class of work for which his natural abilities fit him,” according to Frederick Taylor in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. The book, first published almost 100 years ago, was a leading source of management theory in the first half of last century.

Those who have taken a class on management theory may have come away with the impression that Taylor’s Scientific Management was superseded by McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, with Theory X representing the superseded command-and-control Taylorism and Theory Y representing a more enlightened participative form of management. This caricature is far from the truth, although Taylor does display some amusing attitudes:

“The workman who is best suited to handline pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word ‘percentage’ has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.”

Although he called his principles “scientific management”, Taylor does not seem to have been much of a scientist himself, relying on others to derive simple equations from his time-and-motion measurements. However, he did clearly identify a problem which continues to plague most workplaces today: most workers, either deliberately or inadvertently, work in a manner which is far below their productive potential; consequently, most businesses could be more successful, most employees could be paid more, and most countries could be wealthier, if only workers acted more efficiently.

The book was clearly written in a different time and culture, and the manual-labour-type examples that Taylor uses are less relevant now that most such jobs have been mechanised or exported. However, the challenge for management still remains: the hunt for productivity improvements which bring benefits for everybody and result in greater co-operation and improved relations between the labour force and management.

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