The field of management became fully aware of the inherently adversarial nature between the employees and employers around the end of the 19th century. For a good example, take the Dutch expression that when you are at work in a traditional workplace, you are said to be “on the boss’ time”. The boss has paid you for your time, and now he to some extent owns you for the duration of that time. What he wants you to do is use that entire time to produce with the efficiency and quality as much as anyone could. Your incentive, however, is to do as little as possible, for you are paid the same no matter how much work you perform merely by the passage of time. A possible solution for this problem would be to introduce pay per unit produced, but this is not universally applicable to all work, and it still leaves open the question of quality. Quality must then be clearly defined along measurable metrics and someone must do this measuring. However, depending on the type of work, quality may only be measurable by proxies, or even have dimensions which are not measurable at all. These kinds of problems all stem from the fundamentally adversarial nature between labour and capital and there are books that would fill many bookcases if not libraries written on this subject.
What I’ve just described, however, is only part of the deal. This is because not only is the employee paid to perform a task or set of tasks, the employer has much more control than that. The employer gets a say in how the worker performs the task and when and where. Frederick Taylor extended the problem from merely how much work the worker does in the time paid for, to how productive that worker is. A crucial distinction. Furthermore, he introduced science as a means to solve these problems. His theory of management is referred to as Scientific Management or Taylorism. His theory covered many subjects and was obsolete by the 1930’s, but many of its themes are still very important up to the current day. The part I want to focus on today are time and motion studies.
Taylor observed that workers forced to perform repetitive tasks tended to work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished and thus all do the amount of work that the slowest among them does. He called this soldiering. The employer would like the exact opposite state of affairs: all employees working at the rate of the fastest among them, or at the very least as fast as all of them can. Furthermore, Taylor defined a “fair day’s work” as the amount of work done by a worker in a day absent all soldiering, or the physiological maximum of that worker. Time and motion studies, then, were the means by which to achieve this vision of a “fair day’s work”. A time and motion study involves recording workers while they perform their tasks. Then each task is split up into the smallest possible component parts right down to each and every motion performed by the worker. Then each worker’s motions can be individually timed down to the tenth of a second or further and analyzed. From this the manager can take the fastest way of achieving each individual motion within the larger task and construct a composite way of performing that task taken from all the workers that is faster than any of them performed individually. This way of performing the task can then both be taught to the workers as well as monitored and enforced, increasing efficiency.
This raises a number of important points. Firstly, this all can only come about if we accept that the worker is not just paid for his or her time or even to perform certain tasks, but is to an extent owned and controlled by the employer for the duration of his or her workday. Secondly, this view explicitly sees workers as machines made of muscle and blood: “As an engineer he considered the body as a machine, which either operated efficiently or it did not.” (Schor, 1991: 58) and “this new orientation towards the careful observation and control of the very gestures of workers meant that the modern large-scale American industries incorporated not only the mechanization of tools and equipment but also, and perhaps more importantly, the mechanization and systemization of the workers, and their transformation into an interchangeable part of a working force.” (Dan, 1992: 38). Thirdly, “Taylor’s goal was the maximization of productivity, irrespective of the physiological cost to the worker.” (Karsten, 1996: 47). Unsurprisingly treating workers in a way reminiscent of Lang’s Metropolis or Chaplin’s Modern Times has a great adversarial effect on the physiological and psychological health of the worker, which we shall examine in far greater detail in a later article. Fourthly, all this ties in with the top-down approach to management discussed in the previous article and the concepts of managerialism, alienation and infantilization.
Let’s start with managerialism. Managerialism is the idea that the job of management is to direct the other employees on behalf of the owners in ways that increase the potential of the firm to earn a profit and increase the wealth of the owners. It sees management itself as a skill wholly separate from the field in which the firm operates (Burnham, 1941; Deetz, 1992). In this view it matters not whether the firm is in the steel, car, advertising, electronics or transport business, management is essentially the same. This view in large part arises, I would argue, from the rise of mass production. As jobs are reduced to their component parts and each part made measurable on many metrics the job of managers becomes monitoring the output of the workers and applying the rules for rewards and punishments. You will note that this is itself not a productive activity in the slightest, but merely an elaborate way to attempt to solve the inherently adversarial nature between worker and owner in capitalism. This ‘solution’, however, introduces another layer to this principal-agent problem which takes place between management and owners.
Furthermore, as each job is reduced into its component parts which are in turn standardized so as to be made suitable for mass production, it is inherently deskilled. What this means is that a formerly complex set of tasks that needed to be carried out by a professional, say a chair made by a carpenter, can now be performed either entirely or in large part by unskilled labour. This goes back to the “interchangeable” part of the Dan quote above and as a result, the bargaining power of labour is diminished.
However this is not the only result. Workers are reduced from skilled professionals carrying out a job in which they can express their own creativity and exercise at least a degree of autonomy to parts of a machine that must do as they are told when they are told. In effect, workers are treated as immature, as children. Argyris (1957) argues that the design of jobs and organizations directly frustrate the normal adult human need for autonomy and control over one’s own behavior. Specifically, normal human development from infancy to adulthood involves a progressive increase in responsibility for one’s own actions, whereas in organizations every effort seems to be directed toward treating employees as dependent and remove their control over their own behavior. This infantilization of the worker is examined in some detail by Sievers: “It seems as if the only pattern most western workers can relate to is that of the child vis-a-vis its parents. Through the nature of the work provided for them the employing institutions infantilize the workers. They do not allow them to develop or mature, but limit them to regressive and familiar reactions” (Sievers, 1993: 64) and even goes so far as to argue that participation is not the answer but a further symptom of the problem, which can only be solved through democratization of work.
Infantilization in turn contributes to alienation. Whereas the skilled carpenter had a distinct relationship with the chair he or she produced, the modern workers often sees only a small part of the production process and thus may never even see or know the eventual tangible results of his or her labour. The factory worker is unlikely to ever see the finished chair, especially now that the assembly process itself is outsourced to the consumer. Blumberg (1968) identifies alienation at work as the common condition of modern man and contends that it can be substantially mitigated by worker’s participation and that people want to participate in decision making that affects their work lives. Chomsky (1993: 4) argues that “Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controlled from above. If you don’t like what they are doing you get out”, meaning all corporations contribute to alienation.
While the specific theory Taylor developed is long since considered obsolete, the problems it at least helped create or exacerbate are still with us today. Similarly, some of his views echo through time and into the present day. For but one example of how little things have changed, see for example factories in China, where workers perform mind-numbing and fingers and eye straining repetitive work not simply because they are cheap, but because they are cheaper than machines.
I was a little too optimistic at the end of my last article and thus we were not able to explore all of the promised subjects today. Next article we’ll go into the three human work needs and look at a model of participative management which addresses the problems of infantilization and alienation which we have discussed today. While doing so we will examine the relationship between workplace democracy and society.
Argyris, C. (1957). Personality and Organization. Harper, New York.
Blumberg, P. (1968). Industrial Democracy. Schocken Books, New York.
Burnham, J. (1941). The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. John Day Co., New York.
Chomsky, N. (1993). Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda. Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine.
Dan Thu Nguyen (1992). The Spatialization of Metric Time: The Conquest of Land and Labour in Europe and the United States. Time and Society. 1: 29 pp. 29-50.
Deetz, S. (1992). Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization: Developments in Communications and the Politics of Everyday Life. State University of New York Press. New York.
Karsten, L. (1996). Writing and the advent of Scientific Management: the case of time and motion studies. Scandinavian Journal of Management. Vol. 12 no. 1 pp. 41-55.
Schor, J. (1991). The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure. BasicBooks, New York.
Sievers, B. (1993). Work, Death, and Life Itself: Essays on Management and Organization. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.