Saturday, March 20, 2010

History of the Office 101: Scientific Management

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilberth Carey. It was about growing up in a family of twelve children and their parents, Frank, Sr. and Lillian Gilbreth, who were two of the original efficiency experts. Needless to say, the children lived highly regimented lives. They were required to fill out “process charts” on which they were supposed to check off boxes for washing their faces, brushing their teeth, etc. I still remember, in the fifth grade, making a chart like this for myself after reading about it, though I don’t think my own parents, who were not efficiency experts and had only two children, not twelve, ever looked at it.

The Gilbreths, along with Frederick Taylor, pioneered what was then a new field, which Taylor eventually called “scientific management.” It was all about figuring out the most efficient way to accomplish tasks so as to maximize production. To do this, they timed tasks with stopwatches and analyzed movies frame by frame. At first the tasks were mainly those done in factories, but eventually scientific management – also now known as “Taylorism” -- invaded offices as well as most other types of workplaces.

Its fundamental principles were as follows:

  1. Decision-making should be taken away from workers and given exclusively to managers.
  2. Standard methods should be developed for performing each type of task.
  3. Workers should be selected with appropriate abilities for the type of job.
  4. Workers should be trained in the previously developed standard methods.
  5. All work should be planned for workers and interruptions eliminated.
  6. Wage incentives should be given to workers to increase output.
    Obviously, all of this involved making workplaces into extremely hierarchical bureaucracies in which all the power resided at the top, and workers, who were basically treated as parts of a machine, had virtually no say about anything. Needless to say, employees of all types hated Taylorism, for which the origin of labor unions is often blamed, and strikes resulted. It’s important to remember that both Taylor and Frank Gilbreth were engineers whose understanding of human psychology seems to have been limited even for the age in which they lived, although Lillian Gilbreth, who herself held a doctorate in psychology, was continually trying to remind them that workers were, in fact, human beings (for a wonderful account of Lillian’s side of things, see Making Time: A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Jane Lancaster). (As a mental health professional, I can't help suspecting Taylor -- as well as the guys who bought into his ideas -- as having Asperger's syndrome.)

    In the office, Taylorism seems, in the early 1900s, to have had a much bigger  effect on the newly recruited female clerical force than on the male workers they assisted. Large rooms were filled with desks at which armies of women sat at typewriters, the QWERTY keyboards of which were themselves the product of scientific management principles. The women were strictly ruled by the clock. They had to punch time clocks when they came and left, they were not allowed to talk to one another, only one person at a time could go to the water cooler or bathroom, and they had to make daily reports on their output. According to Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital, scientific managers also timed the minute movements of all types of clerical workers and published their findings, recording that it takes .04 minutes to pull out a file drawer or folder, .033 minutes to get up or sit down in a chair, .009 minutes to turn in a swivel chair, and so forth. What they did with this information, I can't imagine. 

    Although Taylorism later fell into disrepute, it is still very much with us, and some people see such late twentieth century management fads as “corporate re-engineering,” “Six Sigma,” and “lean manufacturing,” all of which are about trying to squeeze as much work out of human beings as possible regardless of the human cost, as being essentially updated transformations of Taylorism. Whether that’s the case or not, it seems likely that those of us who feel that we have to continually hurry about our jobs instead of taking the time to do them well and enjoy the process have Taylorism – along with other early twentieth century movements designed to maximize speed such as Fordism, i.e., assembly lines – to thank. While the emphasis on speed in the twentieth century produced more stuff for all of us to enjoy, I believe that in the twenty-first century it’s time we all slowed down a little, reclaimed the right to think creatively on the job, and retrieved some of the quality of life in the workplace of which factory workers and office workers alike have been deprived for so long.

    Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital.  New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.
    Gilbreth, Frank B., Jr. and Ernestine Carey. Cheaper by the Dozen. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1948. 
    Lancaster, Jane. Making Time. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.

    Coming Next: How Time Was Stolen from Workers and How We Can Get it Back

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