The emergence of modern management theory

1. Modern management

As far as one is concerned with management, the maturation of modernity is marked, programmatically, by the work of F. W. Taylor, for he was responsible for creating the individual and responsible employee not just as a creature of religious imperatives such as the Protestant ethic – or habit – but as a consciously designed utilitarian project.13 Taylor’s (1911) preface to The principles of scientific management makes this quite clear when he stresses the need for national efficiency. His utilitari- anism can be seen in a number of characteristics of his thought. First, it is teleological in its orientation to means. What is important is securing the desired consequences. Second, in Taylor’s philosophy, actions can be judged only by their consequences, such that a dogged empiricism is allied to an unquestioned grasp of the ends to be served. Third, ends are defined in terms of efficiency (primarily for the factory own- ers) but are represented as the common good. Taylor took utilitarianism from a program for dealing with the marginal and abnormal, the other, and transposed it into a program for dealing with the everyday and the normal, the worker.14

Taylor’s concern with productivity and performativity shifted the focus on hands from the margins of society, from indigent trash, to the key centers of employ- ment relations constructed in the market economy. It was this that provided the intellectual and social context within which management was first defined. It was a context riddled with power at every turn. Assumptions about the natural order of things underlay Taylor’s idea that some were born to manage and direct, while the fate of others was to be managed and directed. Efficient management was based on reforming power/knowledge relations, taking them out of the hands of the workers and systematically refashioning them so that they could be placed in the hands of management. Efficient management should obey the precepts of science and respect a liberal mentality, much as should efficient employees in general. Once the one best way was devised, any deviation from it should be regarded with anathema. The purity of power consisted in its eternal return as repetition, as the same routine.

Power – getting others to do what one wanted them to do, even against their will –was inscribed as the normalcy of the new system of scientific management. In this system one should always do just as one was told; one should never be where one does not belong; and what one should do and where one should be were not to be left to chance but should be determined, authoritatively, by the science of produc- tive efficiency and management. Through the alchemy of science the new system of rule could be denoted as a regime of impersonal authority which served no interest other than the general interest in utilitarian efficiency, an interest from which all, with the exception of lazy people who refused to change their behavior, might pros- per. The poor but honest laborer could enrich himself through the dignity of his own exertions in a system designed to maximize the rewards that flowed. So could the employer in the counting house, amassing profits from the same principles. In principle, all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

1. F. W. Taylor: the father of modern management as power shaping efficiency

Although born to a wealthy Quaker professional family, and despite passing the entrance exam for the Harvard Law School, Taylor decided to become apprenticed as a pattern maker and machinist at the Enterprise Hydraulic Works, a valve mak- ing firm owned by a friend of the family. Following that, in 1878 he joined the Midvale Steel Co., first as a laborer and then rapidly climbing the ladder to machin- ist, gang boss and shop supervisor, and eventually becoming chief engineer. One consequence of this biography was that he had a unique degree of practical shop floor knowledge for a man of his class and time. Whereas Bentham was concerned with bringing idle hands to work, Taylor’s utilitarian calculus was oriented to the problem of making hands already at work even more productive, for the greatest good of national efficiency and for the better reward of both hands and the busi- nesses that employed them. To this end he assembled a disciplinary apparatus to achieve efficient scientific management.

After Taylor, the individual workman need not exist merely as a creature of habit, tradition or craft but could become an object of scientific knowledge and a subject produced by the application of that knowledge. The worker became a utilitarian subject. Taylor marks a significant break not because he was some unique innovator or discoverer of truths previously unknown but because he popularized ideas that, although they had been practiced previously, had not been collected, synthesized, documented, and marketed as specific ways of intervening into the everyday organi- zation of work. They had not been ‘made up’ into a bundled program, designed to reg- ulate conduct and to order the spaces within which things are thinkable, utterable, and doable. It was the achievement of this that marks the emergence of modern manage- ment as the application of rational means to everyday practice and measurable ends. Taylor was oriented to the problem of making employed, rather than idle, hands busier in the service of the greatest good of national efficiency and for the better reward of both hands and the businesses that employed them. In fact, one of Taylor’s biographers, Kanigel (1997), suggests that efficiency became iconic for almost all American organizations, and increasingly those of other industrialized nations. It had to be worshipped, feted, and widely represented in cultural artifacts of the age. Taylor’s (1911) Principles of scientific management was such an artifact.

It helped persuade people that efficiency was desirable as an end in itself and that all legitimate means should be oriented towards it.

From the point of view of Nelson and Winter (1982), efficiency became a meta- routine that shaped the future of power. Meta-routines have a direct impact on the complementarity of other routines for which they serve as a pattern maker. Pattern making in meta-routines is provided in an application model for the spread of new solutions to old problems and in generating new problems that had not been constituted under the regime of earlier solutions. In organizations, meta-routines organize the modernization or transformation of existing practices, products, processes, and industries. Meta-routines define the nature of the normalcy within which problems appear. Defining normalcy and establishing it as such are two separate activities and it can be argued, in fact, that a measure of slackness in the former, a measure of indeterminacy, and a lack of total success, are essential to the success of the latter – in a paradoxical way – because success requires failure to further stimulate the development of its own programmatics. Where definitional deficiency and opaqueness exist there is always an expectancy of more output, more efficiency, more productivity. Thus, it is important not to mistake program- matics for accomplished practices; however, although they differ, they are inher- ently related, for every program requires its exceptions to continue expanding.15

2. Measuring time and motion

A key feature of Taylor’s work was use of a stopwatch to time his observations of work – in a less than perfect attempt to impose exactness – whose accuracy was later to be improved greatly by the use of film by some of his associates. In many respects, Taylor was an acute, if somewhat one-dimensional, ethnographer. Taylor was a detailed chronicler of life in the factory. He wanted to know exactly how workmen did what they did when they worked, which entailed detailed ethno- graphic observation, for which he developed a system of denoting and coding. However, it was an ethnographic method devoid of understanding and of input from the subject it objectified.

Taylor’s ethnographic interests were not anthropological; he did not wish merely to describe accurately the customs and rituals of those whom he encountered in work but sought to reform the nature of that work. And his reforms were guided by a concern only with increasing efficiency. He sought to redesign work so that it was conducted in the most efficient way that he could imagine, based on his detailed empirical ethnographies and timings of how it was actually done, as well as how it might be done differently, according to his redesign. The approach constituted management as a science premised on the dangerous conviction that a single view, based on efficient ends, was to be esteemed above any grasp of interpretive under- standings that might be found in the context being studied.

Taylor stressed three techniques in the design of work. Empirical examination, division of labor, and individual competition were his themes for the analysis of work in the factory. Examination was conducted through the detailed observation, note taking and timekeeping of the methods engineer. The redesigned work that would flow from this close inspection and examination was premised on a radical division of labor, with a strict separation between the mental labor of oversight, intended to see the strict dictates of the system were followed, and the manual labor of the production worker, which followed the formalized plan of the engineer. Finally, each individual employee competed against all other employees to maximize the pieces that they could make and thus the piece-rate that they could earn such that they could become a ‘high-priced man’ (Taylor 1911: 60).

Timing and redesign were the panoptical mechanisms that Taylor designed. All work practices were subject to hundreds of observations and timings, through which he sought to establish what he thought of as the one best way in which to do any given task. Taylor’s primary objective in doing a time study was to ascertain an appropriate production rate to use as a basis for an incentive payment. What he sought was the fastest rate, and then he wanted to be able to decompose its elements so that he could understand how it was possible, and how it could become the standard for all operatives.

Expensive measurement and observation instruments and preprinted notepads were used to develop the standards. Observations were made with care for preci- sion, up to a thousandth of a minute in some cases. Taylor compartmentalized productive activities into elements. For each job, elements were defined in such a way that activity within the element could not easily be interrupted. They were the micro-components of work, the smallest unit of task time complete in themselves. Taylor’s procedure made time study much easier, making it possible to produce detailed descriptions for production planning, using the central notion of standard data. If elements were properly designed, according to Taylor’s rules, it became possible to determine a standard for the process by describing the process in terms of its pre-rated elements. A lack of task variability and the repetitious nature of the tasks involved in the occupations studied extended the usefulness of the approach.

3. Against systematic soldiering

Taylor uncovered a whole underground of practices that rendered employed hands as idle, imperfect, superseded, suspect, and so on. Indeed, Taylor was quite clear about his purpose. He believed that the employee is paid by the employer for his time but that time is systematically wasted and squandered by the employed man, which he saw as a moral outrage. The time that is wasted is not the person’s but the employer’s because, as Taylor notes, the employer is paying for it.

The workers were able to get away with a great deal partly because management was so unsystematic, Taylor thought. The employer and his overseers, or managers, often did not know when time was being wasted. They lacked both sufficient insight and oversight of working practices. Taylor had been a working man and knew the tricks of the shop floor, such as ‘soldiering’, a term derived from the prac- tice of workers agreeing on a common work pace, like soldiers on parade. The pace was arbitrary and, Taylor believed, often yielded about half the production rate that was achievable. It occurred when workers made a ‘show’ of ‘working hard’ in order to escape detection whilst idling on the job, using work already produced but released more slowly than the time taken to make it to cover up the deception.

Taylor also knew that, with the invention of electricity, the balance of power between worker and employer was changing. Standardized inputs of energy which were not under the craft control of the workman meant that, in principle, there was no reason why more standardized outputs, in terms of quantity and quality, should not be possible. Taylor took the battle against lazy, imperfect, and other malfunc- tioning hands into the workshop. What was required was reform that would mean that the value of a thing or an action would be determined by its utility. How useful labor was depended on how well engineered it was. And that was a task whose terms could not be set by those happy to soldier and steal the employer’s time but could only be established, authoritatively, to determine the best way in which work should be designed and accomplished.

Power and knowledge would come together to produce an authoritative discourse of ‘scientific management’, which would establish the norms of work not on the basis of custom and tradition – pre-modern conceptions – but on the basis of modern empirical observation, design and timing. And, in order to obtain the greatest happiness of the greatest number involved in the program, the employee should be rewarded more generously in line with the greater rewards flowing to the employers in the way of increased profits. The working man should receive income through piece-rates. The more they produced (and they would produce more because of scientific management) the more they should earn and know that they would earn.

Taylor thought it a fair trade, such that as workers became more productive bodies when reformed by scientific management into better machines for making things, their powers were enhanced. Now, they would be accountable, which enti- tled them to an enhanced capacity to earn income. A worker could make signifi- cantly more money with the piece-rate system because the company would pay 150 percent or more of the day rate on the entire day’s production. The organiza- tion could do even better. Since actual production would be more than doubled and labor costs were only a small portion of total costs for a piece, the company would do very well indeed.

The distribution of power in relations of production was mediated through transferring larger financial reward to workers whilst at the same time nullifying the intrinsic worth of an individual’s task-related knowledge and experience. Anyone could be trained to undertake tasks using Taylorist methods. Thus, scientific method stripped down and supplanted practice-based knowledge with a science that induced the worker to see their own power in terms of their monetary gain. A new more productive regime and higher earnings were gained, and a regimented and authoritarian managerial regime was introduced which now collectively prior- itized economic benefit on the part of owners as the dominant social value shap- ing management and work.

Psychologically, the system offered incentive only for a sustained high-level performance for an entire day. If employees worked hard and consistently all would be happy. Workers’ happiness was delivered through piece-rates; the employers’ through greater profits. The utilitarian auspices could not be clearer. Scientific management replaced old rule-of-thumb methods with a utilitarian calculus. The selection and training of workers was to be a specific focus, so that, particularly as Münsterberg (1913) developed these techniques, they represented simple but effec- tive technologies of power. Selection was a mechanism of fitness for purpose; those men who were deemed unfit for the Taylor system were not selected. Fitness might be expressed in any terms; it could refer to rude bodily health as much as disposi- tions, such as being docile and willing to follow instructions. Training represented an equally humble modality of power; it functioned in terms of a standard that men fit for purpose ought to be able to achieve. It represented a way of constructing the concrete person in relation to the abstracted standard – abstracted, that is, from the detailed process of observation, ethnography and timing that created it. Training consisted, primarily, in gaining absolute obedience to the prescribed methods, as Taylor’s account of Schmidt makes clear.

4. Schmidt: exemplar of a technology for the melting pot

Schmidt was a worker whom Taylor reports having interviewed. He was a ‘Pennsylvanian Dutchman’, whom Taylor represents as ‘phlegmatic’. Whether he was or not is debatable, but what is evident is that he did not have great fluency and finesse in the use of the English language. Schmidt’s voice is represented as heavily accented and as one that deploys a limited vocabulary. Jacques (1996) notes in passing that the fact that Schmidt was ‘Pennsylvanian Dutch’ need not necessarily indicate that he was an immigrant so much as his ethnic origin. Nonetheless, his lack of linguistic fluency points to an important aspect of the field of social rela- tions within which Taylor was intervening.

The melting pot was running at full pressure in the late-nineteenth-century United States. European peasants from diverse ethnicities went into Ellis Island and came out as Americans, to enter the mills of the northeast industrial machine. No assumptions either of English-language competency or of scientific rationality could be made about such pre-industrial subjects. One reason why a degree of indeterminacy had flourished in the control of workshop practices was a lack of ability to communicate effectively, so that much remained unsaid. Hence, Taylor produced instructional cards that communicated through images, which had great representational power.

Taylor and the college graduates he employed to set the standards were all educated men. And when they had finished designing a job the worker didn’t need much functional literacy to be able to do it, but just did what he was shown to do and did nothing else. In fact, as Taylor once said, famously, a ‘trained gorilla’ would be able to do a job once he had redesigned it, and he was also reported as saying that people with intellectual disabilities might make better employees in the Taylor system because they would be less likely to become bored by the conditions of the job.

5. Handling materials

Taylor studied the handling of pig iron in terms of the design of work, especially tools and human movement, with variable results (see Banta 1993; Wrege and Hodgetts 2000; Wrege and Greenwood 1991; Stark 2002; Palmer 1975; Cutler 1978). Research on incentive schemes followed, as did observations on piece-rate systems and their impact on production. Henceforth, management became simple, Taylor thought, as it simply became a task of determining the one best way that had been derived from the systematic observations of ‘scientific management’ (the name that he gave to his practice) and, by applying it to practice, furthering subservience. As long as managers and the managed did not deviate from this path then efficiency and productivity would be ensured, he argued. The greatest amount could be produced with the least effort. Scientific method, he advocated, could be applied to all problems and applied just as much to managers as to workers.

Taylor turned his attention to shoveling coal. By experimenting with different designs of shovel for use with different materials, he was able to design shovels that would permit the worker to shovel for the whole day. In so doing, he reduced the number of people shoveling at the Bethlehem Steel Works from 500 to 140. He introduced shovels of different sizes for handling different materials (21½ pounds was the most efficient load in a US Steel company study) and saved the company $78,000 per year, which was a great deal of money if translated into contemporary values. As a result of all of these changes, the cost per ton for handling materials dropped from 7 to 8 cents per ton to 3 to 4 cents per ton. The average number of tons shoveled per worker increased from 16 to 59. Average worker pay per day increased from $1.15 per day to $1.88 per day.

Previously, each of the workers supplied their shovel and performed their job in a slightly different way. Taylor told the workers that their pay would be doubled while he made some investigations into how they worked. Taylor and his associates used stopwatches to time the laborers as they performed various tasks. That process also counted the number of shovel-loads they each moved. Based upon his studies, Taylor discovered that the load could vary from 4 to 38 pounds. Starting at 38 pounds per shovel-load, Taylor counted the number of shovel-loads and tons carried per day. Then Taylor had the laborers use short shovels that carried 34 pounds and found that more tons were moved. Experimentation with larger shovels and shovel-loads continued until the optimum shovel-load was determined to be a standard. Also, Taylor suggested that different types of shovels be used for different types of materials. Methods for better scheduling and assignment of workers to shoveling jobs were recommended. Some training was done with the laborers on efficient shoveling techniques.

Sometimes inscribing the design of work meant taking matters literally out of the workers’ hands. It was the custom for workers to supply their own tools, and a good workman would have a special sense of the fitness of the tools they were accustomed to using. Taylor stipulated that, instead of the workman supplying his tools, they would be supplied and maintained by the organization. The best tools that could be had would be used at every level, and machines would be kept fully operational by engineers. Hands were to become operatives whose operations would be decided elsewhere. The traditional value of the craftsmen’s tool ownership disappeared with the need for his knowledge and expertise. Scientific management required empty hands and minds to flourish because its success was dependent on depersonaliza- tion, contrived practices and a sterile, fabricated environment. In the past, at least as Taylor constituted it, employees had too much freedom to do as they would and not as they should. He fixed this problem. But he also had to fix the overseers.

Instead of allowing workers to choose their own tasks and train themselves as best they could, management reformed by the Taylor system should take responsi- bility for workers’ formation as laboring subjects. These managers were to develop a spirit of hearty cooperation with workers to ensure that all work would be car- ried out in accordance with the scientifically devised procedures. The work was to be divided between workers and management, in such a way that each group took over the work for which it was best fitted, rather than inheriting a system where management oversight was dependent on worker insight into how responsibilities were distributed. Management was to be based on knowledge of scientifically designed routines so that their exercise of power would be restricted to exceptions. The everyday business of power – getting others to do what one willed them to do – would be handled by the routines.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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