Basic approaches that have evolved over time to improve productivity

Basic approaches used to improve productivity

Impact of scientific management

In the United Kingdom much of the progressive and innovatory characteristics of the early pioneers had disappeared by the 1870s. Complacency was often enough the rule in the established engineering and textile trades. Old methods, working in antique organizational structures, remained the general pattern. Craftsmen divided from each other on traditional lines, reinforced by trade societies and operating under the general direction of an overworked foreman, largely controlled the production process both as to method and volume of output.

The introduction of improved automatic machinery, piecework methods of payment and greater division of labor, with its concomitant of de-skilling the craftsmen, was bound to be firmly resisted and only to be achieved slowly and with great bitterness.

In the USA the problem was a different one. There shortage of skilled labor and a shifting, mainly immigrant, work force caused many holdups in production. It was into this situation that F. W. Taylor (1856-1915) plunged. (See Copley (1923), Urwick and Brech (1956) and Urwick (1956).) Much has been made of his limited beginnings and his rise through all stages to top management in a short time.

In fact, he was from a comparatively wealthy family and always had the intention of purchasing a substantial share of the business in which he took part. If this was perhaps the first occasion on which he and his disciples distorted the true position, it was certainly not the last. Nevertheless, this should not obscure Taylor's substantial contribution to those improvements in work organization that became the nucleus of that all embracing term 'scientific management'.

In its fully developed state it included four elements:

  • The breaking down of all production processes into simple elements and their scrutiny in a methodical way to eliminate unnecessary activities. Each operation was to be such that it could be described accurately in writing.
  • The selection of an above average worker to carry out the sequence of operations under expert supervision, and the timing of each of the elements that made up the work cycle.
  • The establishment of a differential piecework system based on the observations made in 2. above. Its application in such a way that the faster worker was paid at a higher rate per unit compared to the average, whilst the slowest workers were heavily penalized.
  • The enforcement of the system, through functional supervisors who specialized in particular aspects of the process rather than being responsible for a group of men or machines.

Taylor's successes were limited during his life and some of his failures were considerable and well publicized. He himself always firmly stated that his proposals were inseparable, one from another, yet this is precisely what everyone did and accordingly Taylorism first and scientific management afterwards came to be used to justify many partial and hastily cobbled together schemes. They often enough included exploitative bonus plans prepared by incompetent, hard–driven, or unscrupulous employers.

Hence it became a ready and ultimately almost meaningless term of abuse in the protection of legitimate or sectional interests by trade union activists. Today, however, the ideas of scientific management, refined and elaborated, form the basis on which the vast majority of work is organized throughout the developed world (Aitken (1960)).

Scientific management and its principles spread steadily but unspectacularly throughout the USA in the first decade of the 20th century. Apart from Taylor, the main protagonists were C. Barth, H. L. Gantt, and F. Gilbreth (Urwick (1956)). In the United Kingdom, professional magazines had done something to publicize them from 1896 onwards. Taylor's one visit to England was largely unsuccessful.

Progressive firms began to adopt his ideas, often in a piecemeal fashion from 1910 onwards. Perhaps the most complete installation was at Remold Chain (Manchester) after 1912. This was based on a well–established record of trust between employer and workers, and preceded by careful planning and consultation. Indeed, the company subsequently developed into joint consultation procedures from these beginnings (Urwick and Brech (1956) and Urwick (1956)).

During the interwar period, the ideas spread comparatively quickly in the USA, with trade unions at first cooperating in the boom 1920s. In the UK the experience was different, as the short postwar boom petered out. Such expansion as actually took place was largely through the efforts of the Bedaux Company. The opposition of the trade unions in their efforts to protect their members' jobs is understandable. By 1936 it was being claimed that of the 240 firms operating the system, typical results were productivity rises of 122 per cent combined with increases in operator earnings of 18 per cent, whilst labor costs fell by 38 per cent.

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