Taylorism and Fordism

In this section, we turn to what others call ‘classical’ work organization – Taylorism and Fordism. They are considered classical partly because they represent the earliest contributions to modern management theory, but they are also classical because they iden-tify ideas and issues that keep occurring in contemporary organizational behaviour and management literature, although writers now tend to use a different vocabulary. We will now consider each of these influential classical approaches to work organization.

Taylorism The American Frederick W. Taylor (1856–1915) pioneered the scientific management approach to work organization, hence the term Taylorism. Taylor developed his ideas on work organization while working as superintendent at the Midvale Steel Company in Pennsylvania, USA. Taylorism represents both a set of management practices and a system of ideological assumptions. Taylorism: a process of determining the division of work into its smallest possible skill elements, and how the process of completing each task can be standardized to achieve maximum efficiency. Also referred to as scientific management

Taylorism: a process of determining the division of work into its smallest possible skill elements, and how the process of completing each task can be standardized to achieve maximum efficiency. Also referred to as scientific management The autonomy (freedom from control) of craft workers was potentially a threat to managerial control. For the craft worker, the exercise of control over work practices was closely linked to his personality, as this description of ‘craft pride’, taken from the trade journal Machinery in 1915, suggests:

As a first-line manager, Taylor not surprisingly viewed the position of skilled shop-floor workers differently. He was appalled by what he regarded as inefficient working practices and the tendency of his subordinates not to put in a full day’s work, what Taylor called ‘natural soldiering’. He believed that workers who did manual work were motivated solely by money – the image of the ‘greedy robot’ – and were too stupid to develop the most efficient way of performing a task – the ‘one best way’.

The role of management was to analyse ‘scientifically’ all the tasks to be undertaken, and then to design jobs to eliminate time and motion waste. Taylor’s approach to work organization and employment relations was based on the following five principles:

  • maximum job fragmentation
  • separate planning and doing
  • separate ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ labour
  • a minimization of skill requirements
  • a minimization of handling component parts and material.

The centrepiece of scientific management is the separation of tasks into their simplest constituent elements – ‘routinization of work’ (the first principle). Most manual workers were viewed as sinful and stupid, and therefore all decision-making functions had to be removed from their hands (the second principle). All prepa-ration and servicing tasks should be taken away from the skilled worker (direct labour), and, drawing on Charles Babbage’s principle, performed by unskilled and cheaper labour (indirect labour, in the third principle). Minimizing the skill requirements to perform a task would reduce the worker’s control over work activities or the labour process (the fourth principle).

Finally, management should ensure that the layout of the machines on the factory floor minimized the movement of people and materials to shorten the time taken (the fifth principle). While the logic of work fragmentation and routinization is simple and compelling, the principles of Taylorism reflect the class antagonism that is found in employment relations. When Taylor’s principles were applied to work organization, they led to the intensification of work: to ‘speeding up’, ‘deskilling’ and new techniques to control workers, as shown in Figure 3.

2. And since gender, as we have dis-cussed, is both a system of classification and a structure of power relations, it should not surprise us that Taylorism contributed to the shift in the gender composition of engineering firms. As millions of men were recruited into the armed forces for the First World War (1914–18), job fragmentation and the production of standardized items such as rifles, guns and munitions enabled women ‘dilutees’ to be employed in what had previously been skilled jobs reserved exclusively for men.

Some writers argue that Taylorism was a relatively short-lived phenomenon, which died in the economic depression of the 1930s. However, others have argued that this view underestimates the spread and influence of Taylor’s principles: ‘the popular notion that Taylorism has been “superseded” by later schools of “human relations”, that it “failed” … represents a woeful misreading of the actual dynamics of the development of management’.

Similarly, others have made a persuasive case that, ‘In general the direct and indirect influence of Taylorism on factory jobs has been extensive, so that in Britain job design and technology design have become imbued with neo-Taylorism’ (ref. 10, p. 73). Fordism Henry Ford (1863–1947) applied the major principles of scientific management in his car plant, as well as installing specialized machines and adding a crucial innovation to Taylorism: the flow-line principle of assembly work.

This kind of work organization has come to be called Fordism. The moving assembly line had a major impact on employment relations. It exerted greater control over how workers per-formed their tasks, and it involved the intensification of work and labour productivity through ever-greater job fragmentation and short task-cycle times. In 1922, Henry Ford stated his approach to managing shop-floor workers: ‘The idea is that man … must have every second necessary but not a single unnecessary second’ (ref. 46, p. 33).

Fordism: a term used to describe mass production using assembly-line technology that allowed for greater division of labour and time and motion management, techniques pioneered by the American car manufacturer Henry Ford in the early twentieth century Fordism: a term used to describe mass production using assembly-line technology that allowed for greater division of labour and time and motion management, techniques pioneered by the American car manufacturer Henry Ford in the early twentieth century The speed of work on the assembly line is determined by the technology itself rather than by a series of written instructions.

Management’s control of the work process was also enhanced by a detailed time and motion study inaugurated by Taylor. Work study engineers attempted to discover the shortest possible task-cycle time. Recording job times meant that managers could monitor more closely their subordinates’ effort levels and performance. Task measurement therefore acted as the basis of a new structure of control. Fordism is also characterized by two other essential features.

The first was the introduction of an interlinking system of conveyor lines that fed components to different work stations to be worked on, and the second was the standardization of commodities to gain economies of scale. Thus, Fordism established the long-term principle of the mass production of standardized commodities at a reduced cost. Ford’s production system was, however, not without its problems. Workers found the repetitive work boring and unchallenging, and their job dissatisfaction was expressed in high rates of absenteeism and turnover.

In 1913, for example, the turn-over of Ford workers was more than 50,000. The management techniques developed by Ford in response to these employment problems serve further to differentiate Fordism from Taylorism. Henry Ford introduced the ‘five dollar day’ – double the pay and shorter hours for those who qualified. Benefits depended on a factory worker’s lifestyle being deemed satisfactory, which included abstaining from alcohol. Ford’s style of paternalism attempted to inculcate new social habits, as well as new labour habits, that would facilitate job performance.

Taylorism and Fordism became the predominant approaches to job design in vehicle and electrical engineering – the large-batch production industries – in the USA and Britain. Post-Fordism As a strategy of organizing work and people, Taylorism and Fordism had their limitations. First, work simplification led to boredom and dissatisfaction, and tended to encourage adversarial relations and conflict, including frequent work stoppages. Second, Taylor-style work involves control and coordination costs.

As specialization increases, so do indirect labour costs as more production planners, supervisors and quality control inspectors are employed. The economies associated with the division of labour tend to be offset by the diseconomies of management control costs. Third, Taylorism and Fordism affect what might be called ‘cooperation costs’. As management’s control over the quantity and quality of workers’ performance increases, workers experience increased frustration and dissatisfaction, which leads to a withdrawal of their commitment to the organization.

The relationship between controller and controlled can deteriorate so much that it results in a further increase in management control. The principles of Taylorism and Fordism thus reveal a basic paradox, ‘that the tighter the control of labour power, the more control is needed’ (ref. 10, pp. 36–7). The adverse reactions to the extreme division of labour led to the development of new approaches to work organization that attempted to address these problems.

The ‘human relations’ movement attempted to address the limitations of Taylorism and Fordism by shifting attention to the perceived psychological and social needs of workers. The movement grew out of the Hawthorne experiments con-ducted by Elton Mayo in the 1920s. Mayo set up an experiment in the relay assembly room at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago, USA, which was designed to test the effects on productivity of variations in working conditions (lighting, temperature and ventilation). The Hawthorne research team found no clear relationship between any of these factors and productivity.

However, the study led the researchers to develop concepts that might explain the factors affecting worker motivation. They concluded that more than just economic incentives and the work environment motivated workers: recognition and social cohesion were important too. The message for management was also quite clear: rather than depending on management controls and financial incentives, it needed to influence the work group by cultivating a culture that met the social needs of workers.

The human relations movement advocated various techniques such as worker participation and non-authoritarian supervisors, which would, it was thought, promote a climate of good (neo)-human relations in which the quantity and quality needs of management could be met. This largely forgotten history, which examined concepts such as atmosphere, informal structures and organizational climate, reminds us that twenty-first-century culturalist scholarship is not a completely new development in the thinking about organizations.

Page 75 Work in organizations: an integration of ideas McDonaldization (also known as ‘McWork’ or ‘McJobs’): a term used to symbolize the new realities of corporate-driven globalization that engulf young people in the twenty-first century, including simple work patterns, electronic controls, low pay and part-time and temporary employment McDonaldization (also known as ‘McWork’ or ‘McJobs’): a term used to symbolize the new realities of corporate-driven globalization that engulf young people in the twenty-first century, including simple work patterns, electronic controls, low pay and part-time and temporary employment In discussing post-Fordism, we emphasized competing claims over whether new forms of work lead to an enrichment of work or the degradation of work.

Managerial optimists argue that new work structures empower employees, and celebrate the claim that managerial behaviour has shifted its focus from ‘control’ to ‘commitment’. Critical analysts contend that some new work regimes are ‘electronic sweatshops’, and are basically a euphemism for work intensification.

To capture the new realities of the modern workplace, critics often use the term ‘McWorld’ or ‘McDonaldization’, meaning that a vast amount of work experience, especially for young people, women and workers of colour, involves menial tasks, part-time contracts, close monitoring of performance and entrenched job insecurity.

In Figure 3. 3, we draw together the developments in work and employment practices over the last 200 years, by highlighting four paradigms or distinctive approaches: craft/artisan, Taylorism /Fordism, neo-Fordism and post-Fordism. Work is shown to vary along two dimensions: the variety of work – the extent to which employees have an opportunity to do a range of tasks using their various skills and knowledge – and the autonomy in work – the degree of initiative that employees can exercise over how their immediate work is performed. Here, craft/artisan means the types of work organization that are based on craft-based skills and often associated with a narrow range of specialized tasks, a high level of skill and a high degree of autonomy.

Taylorism /Fordism means the adoption of basic scientific management principles and the assembly-line methods pioneered by Henry Ford, and neo-Fordism refers to a work configuration that has modified the core principles of Fordism through flexible working practices to fit contemporary operations. In contrast to the craft/artisan paradigm, the Taylorism /Fordism and neo-Fordism paradigms are often associated with a narrow variety of tasks, a low level of skill and a low degree of autonomy in work. Post-Fordism refers to organizations that do not rely on the principles of Taylorism or Fordism, and is often associated with ‘high-performance work systems’, with self-management and with a high degree of autonomy in work.

As others have mentioned, the strength of this conceptual model is as a heuristic device – a teaching aid – to help us summarise the complex development of work organization and employment relations. The research on the trends in work design suggests that Taylorism and Fordism have dominated the managerial approaches to work organization. In addition to the four broad classifications of work organization, the model shows two trends proposed by the proponents of the ‘deskilling’ and ‘upskilling’ theses. The deskilling thesis maintains that, in Western capitalist economies, there is a general trend in paid work towards a narrow variety of tasks and low autonomy; the arrows marked ‘A’ represent this trend in the diagram.

The upskilling thesis suggests an opposite trend towards a wide variety of tasks and high autonomy in work; the arrows marked ‘B’ represents this trend. It is important to understand that different regimes of work organization affect the nature of the employment relationship, whether or not this is explicitly acknowledged in the writings of organizational theorists.

For example, if work is reorganized to deskill or upskill employees, this will change the degree of interdependency, and typically the power dynamics, between the employer and employee. To sum up, some of the more recent empirically based literature offers a context-sensitive understanding of the development of work, and rejects a general tendency towards either deskilling or upskilling.

The ‘context-sensitive’ view makes the point that new work structures do not have uniform outcomes, but are likely to be ‘mixed’ and contingent on a number of variables, such as business strategy, the nature of new technology, the degree of employee involvement in decision making, union involvement in the change process, and the extent to which ‘bundles’ of employment practices support the new work regime. In sum, the identification of potential benefits and costs for workers from new work configurations provides a more complex picture, one that strongly supports the hypothesis that changes in the nature of work can strengthen or threaten the ‘psychological contract’.