Management as the Science of Squeezing
This interesting article by Matthew Stewart mainly questions the value of an education specifically in business administration, as opposed to, say, philosophy. Stewart notes two general management theories that alternate in emphasis in the popular mind, and this anecdote from the founding of one theory, indeed, from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s invention of the field of management science, resonates with me, after my years in construction:
Taylor was forty-three years old and on contract with the Bethlehem Steel Company when the pig iron question hit him. Staring out over an industrial yard that covered several square miles of the Pennsylvania landscape, he watched as laborers loaded ninety-two-pound bars onto rail cars. There were 80,000 tons’ worth of iron bars, which were to be carted off as fast as possible to meet new demand sparked by the Spanish-American War. Taylor narrowed his eyes: there was waste there, he was certain. After hastily reviewing the books at company headquarters, he estimated that the men were currently loading iron at the rate of twelve and a half tons per man per day.
Taylor stormed down to the yard with his assistants (“college men,” he called them) and rounded up a group of top-notch lifters (“first-class men”), who in this case happened to be ten “large, powerful Hungarians.” He offered to double the workers’ wages in exchange for their participation in an experiment. The Hungarians, eager to impress their apparent benefactor, put on a spirited show. Huffing up and down the rail car ramps, they loaded sixteen and a half tons in something under fourteen minutes. Taylor did the math: over a ten-hour day, it worked out to seventy-five tons per day per man. Naturally, he had to allow time for bathroom breaks, lunch, and rest periods, so he adjusted the figure approximately 40 percent downward. Henceforth, each laborer in the yard was assigned to load forty-seven and a half pig tons per day, with bonus pay for reaching the target and penalties for failing.
When the Hungarians realized that they were being asked to quadruple their previous daily workload, they howled and refused to work. So Taylor found a “high-priced man,” a lean Pennsylvania Dutchman whose intelligence he compared to that of an ox. Lured by the promise of a 60 percent increase in wages, from $1.15 to a whopping $1.85 a day, Taylor’s high-priced man loaded forty-five and three-quarters tons over the course of a grueling day—close enough, in Taylor’s mind, to count as the first victory for the methods of modern management.
Stewart goes on to note that the method apparently did not do much for Bethlehem Steel, and the experiment mainly benefited Mr. Taylor, who went on to teach at Harvard and become a sort of management guru. For my part, having long been very concerned with efficiency and proving my worth, I have to confess a shift, in recent months, toward the attitude of the Hungarians.
A carpenter I know who works for a custom woodworking company has the worst of two worlds: He is handled as a regular employee, meaning that corporate salesmen estimate the time that each project will take, but he is paid per project, not per hour. When the economy began to sour, the company simply reduced the amount of time that it estimated for each job. One day, installing a set of stairs was a two-day task; the next day, it was a one-day task.
I’m sure my employers aren’t alone in having made a point of repeated reminders that their workers are fortunate to have jobs at all, in this economy, but I wonder whether the effect on employees mightn’t be contrary to managers’ intentions. Eventually, all workers will reach the point of suggesting that if such a pool of ready replacements exists (all certain to prove as competent and reliable as current employees), perhaps the boss should bring them in. With that attitude established, employers might be surprised to find that morale and personal dedication to the company weren’t as high as they’d thought when things begin to turn around.
As the fatal flaw of Taylor’s theorizing, Stewart points to the high degree of fudging that has to be done to make human activity estimable. Breaks, meals, health, motivation, and so on all affect outcomes. In other words, a stopwatch and limited-time experiment may tell the manager how quickly something can be done, but the relevant question is really how quickly it is reasonable to expect a particular person to accomplish a given task in specific conditions, and that’s highly subjective.
The aforementioned building contractors believe it’s reasonable to squeeze their employees in a recession, and it may, in fact, be. It depends on the justification for the squeeze. If competition has decreased the prices that he can charge, then pay decreases can be justified… and employees would understandably expect a resumption of their prior rates when prices go up again. If the employer’s merely making a calculation on the amount of profit that he can claim for himself, then pay cuts are more apt to rankle.
Of course, the sort of management theory that Stewart describes above creates an ongoing battle entirely apart from wages. In construction it is especially noticeable, because the actual work is so distinct from the management and planning aspect of it, but a large portion of information technology’s boon went to employers, who thereby gained access to workers around the clock, with weekend emails and lunchtime cell-phone calls.
One could argue, on the other hand, that technology has made it easier for workers to duplicate the activities of their employers, making it easier to go out and to compete. (The motivation is only stronger to the extent that employers don’t respect the end-of-day bell as the true cessation of work.) In the long run, then, it may be the managers who find themselves obviated.
Workers know how long a task should take, in reasonable terms, as a matter of absorbed knowledge. If the rest comes down to timing and calculations, let a computer handle it.