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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taylor Motivation Theory: Further reading

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Taylor observed that some workers were more talented than others, and that even smart ones were often unmotivated.
He observed that most workers who are forced to perform repetitive tasks tend to work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished. This slow rate of work has been called by various terms, including "soldiering", (reflecting the way conscripts may approach following orders), "dogging it", or "goldbricking". Managers may call it by those names or "loafing" or "malingering"; workers may call it "getting through the day" or "preventing management from abusing us". Taylor used the term "soldiering" and observed that, when paid the same amount, workers will tend to do the amount of work that the slowest among them does. This reflects the idea that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, and do not benefit from working above the defined rate of work when it will not increase their remuneration. He therefore proposed that the work practice that had been developed in most work environments was crafted, intentionally or unintentionally, to be very inefficient in its execution. He posited that time and motion studies combined with rational analysis and synthesis could uncover one best method for performing any particular task, and that prevailing methods were seldom equal to these best methods. Crucially, Taylor himself prominently acknowledged (although many white-collar imitators of his ideas would forget) that if each employee's compensation was linked to their output, their productivity would go up. Thus his compensation plans usually included piece rates. He rejected the notion, which was universal in his day and still prevalent even now, of the secret magic of the craftsman—that the trades, including manufacturing, were black arts that could not be analyzed and could only be performed by craft production methods.
In the course of his empirical studies, Taylor discovered many concepts that were not widely accepted at the time. For example, by observing workers, he decided that labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. He proved this with the task of unloading ore: workers were taught to take more rests during work, and as a result production "paradoxically" increased.
Unless people manage themselves, somebody has to take care of administration, and thus there is a division of work between workers and administrators. One of the tasks of administration is to select the right person for the right job:

    the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.
—Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1911.
Relationship to mechanization and automation
Scientific management evolved in an era when mechanization and automation  existed but had hardly gotten started, historically speaking, and were still embryonic. Two important corollaries flow from this fact: (1) The ideas and methods of scientific management were exactly what was needed to be added to the American system of manufacturing to extend the transformation from craft  work (with humans as the only possible agents) to mechanization and automation; but also, (2) Taylor himself could not have known this, and his goals did not include the extensive removal of humans from the production process. During his lifetime, the very idea would have seemed like science fiction, because not only did the technological bridge to such a world not yet look plausible, but most people hadn't even considered that it could happen. Before digital computers existed, such ideas were not just outlandish but also mostly unheard of.
Nevertheless, Taylor (unbeknownst to himself) was laying the groundwork for automation, because he was analyzing processes into discrete, unambiguous pieces, which is exactly what computers need to follow logic and make decisions. It is often said that computers are "smart" in terms of mathematic computation ability, but "dumb" because they must be told exactly what to calculate, when, and how, and (in the absence of any successful AI) they can never understand why. With historical hindsight it is possible to see that Taylor was essentially inventing the high-level programming for industrial process control in the absence of any machines that could carry it out. But Taylor could not see it that way at the time; in his world, it was humans that would be the agents to execute the program. However, one of the common threads between his world and ours is that the agents of execution need not be "smart" to execute their tasks. In the case of computers, they are not able (yet) to be "smart" (in that sense of the word); in the case of human workers under scientific management, they were often able but were not allowed. Once the time-and-motion men had completed their studies of a particular task, the workers had very little opportunity for further thinking, experimenting, or suggestion-making. They were expected (and forced) to "play dumb" most of the time (which, unsurprisingly to students of human nature, humans tend to revolt against).

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