The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of work', Engineers Australia, June 1999, p. 66

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Frederick Winslow Taylor is one of the best known engineers of the twentieth century. His innovations enabled more goods to be produced more cheaply and many benefited from this. But at what price? How many people have had to suffer the dreadfully demeaning jobs that resulted from his failure to recognise the dignity, skills and intelligence of manual workers?

Engineers and industrial managers in the later part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century sought to find ways to control dissatisfied workers and ensure their productivity. Taylor was one of several engineers experimenting with ways of increasing production. He sought to apply scientific principles to human behaviour. Scientific management was based, according to Taylor in his 1911 book Principles of Scientific Management, on four principles:

1. The most efficient way of doing a task should be worked out scientifically using experiment and time and motion studies.

2. Workers should be carefully selected and trained to do the work in this way.

3. Workers would do their work under the close supervision and control of management and paid a bonus for doing exactly as they had been told.

4. Management would take over the planning and thinking part of the work.

Taylor argued that the thinking could be carried out by more intelligent and educated people sitting at desks. He claimed the sort of person who did the planning and thinking should be a quite different sort of person from the one who actually did the work. All the worker needed to do was follow instructions about what to do, how to do it and how much time to spend doing it. Their cooperation was enforced through close monitoring and control by management. Taylor apparently had little respect for the thinking abilities of the manual worker:

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.

But Taylor's innovations destroyed the tradition of taking pride in one's work for manual workers. In reducing the activity of workers to the bare necessities of the task in hand and removing any thought or skill from that task he made work monotonous, tedious and unremittingly boring. An editorial in The Engineer at the time stated: "We do not hesitate to say that Taylorism is inhuman. As far as possible it dehumanizes the man, for it endeavours to remove the only distinction that makes him better than a machine&emdash;his intelligence."

It was this separation of mental and manual labour that became characteristic of mass production methods in the twentieth century. Taylor's influence is still evident in many factories today&emdash;particularly in mass production in Australia, the US and Britain. It is manifest in the job fragmentation, minimal skill and training requirements, maximum repetition, separation of thinking and doing, and the lack of variety in workers' jobs. Workers repeat the same simple tasks over and over like robots, have no scope to show initiative or innovation, and utilise a small portion of their capabilities.

Typically the introduction of scientific management, although it greatly increased the number of office workers required, resulted in a significant reduction in production workers and therefore a cheaper workforce. It embodied the ideal of production efficiency. However achieving efficiency at the expense of the quality of people's working lives no longer makes sense. The traditional goal of cheaper and more plentiful consumer goods should no longer be a high priority in a world where overconsumption is destroying the environment. Are such goods really cheaper if the price is the demeaning of millions of workers?

Surely it is time to recognise other priorities, such as reducing working hours and improving the experience of work. There is always more than one way to produce something. Hopefully engineers will consider methods that are less destructive of human capabilities and talents in the future.