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Working to live? (Part 3)


I ended the last blog by suggesting that Frederick Taylor was a fraud. Rather than rehash here all the reasons why that may be true, I’ll refer you instead to an excellent article that Matthew Stewart wrote for the Atlantic Magazine and recommend you read that. What I’d like to concentrate on here are some of the consequences of Taylorism.

Regardless of Taylor’s methods, there is nothing inherently wrong with a drive for efficiency. Everything we do, both inside and outside work, takes a certain amount of time. The principle underlying Taylorism is not necessarily fraudulent - business must involve, to an extent, the search for the shortest time period within which the widget can be made, how quickly the client can be served and so on. My concern is not with that but with the other question that no one seems to be asking: what is the consequence of this efficiency?

The superficial response is that greater efficiency results in faster throughput and therefore greater output and productivity; it may also result in reduced costs and greater profit. So far, so good. This is a logical argument when we’re talking about machinery and possibly even production lines. It even has merit when talking about the everyday processes that employees use in order to get their jobs done: the fewer steps in the process, the faster they are able to get their work done.

But what about the other consequences of greater efficiency? If you’re wondering what they are, ask yourself this question: whenever new processes are introduced at work and time is saved, what does your employer ask you to do with the saved time? Do they allow you to go home early? Have longer lunch-breaks? Or do they, as I suspect, expect you to do more work in that saved time?

What kind of incentive is this? Who in their right mind (aside, of course, from Frederick Winslow Taylor and his deluded devotees) thinks this will encourage people to work harder? Efficiency works well with machines but we are not machines. A drive for ever greater efficiency is damaging the lives of a great many employees in fundamental ways, leading to less job satisfaction, greater stress and, as I wrote last week, increased suicide.

Over the coming weeks, I want to look at and, perhaps, challenge two sacred cows – that setting targets and managing to them is a good thing and that management/leadership can be taught. These two beliefs have been at the base of a system that has resulted in people killing themselves because of their work – what if both of those ideas are wrong? Perhaps it’s time to examine them a little more closely.

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