In order to make Taylor’s thoughts of what the management’s task should be more vivid for my students, I developed a simple exercise:
First I showed to the class a complete work task that consisted of the following steps:
- Take a sheet of paper (A4) and draw a circle on it.
- Draw an “X” in the middle of the circle.
- Fold the sheet once to an A5 format.
- Fold it a second time so that you end up with an A6 format.
- Put the folded sheet of paper in an envelop.
- Seal the envelope.
- Stamp the envelope (I just used my fist imitating a stamp) and put it away.
I asked the students to take the role of the management. They should a) observe what I do and b) de-compose the work task into little elements. It was not difficult for them to identify the above elements. Afterwards, I asked seven students to come in front of the class. Each of them was asked to do one of the steps. The rest of the class (again taking the management role) should observe one of the steps and measure the time that it takes to carry it out. Again this was not difficult. Additionally, most of them saw that with a bit of exercise each of the seven students would easily be capable of doing the work faster.
During the exercise I explained to the students that this is what Taylor means with ‘taking the knowledge about work away from the workers and putting into the hands of management’. After the exercise I asked them about possible consequences of such de-composition. One mentioned quality issues, another one emphasised that social needs are disregarded. For me these and other answers provided an almost perfect entry into a discussion of some of the effects of Taylorism.
For example, I focused on ‘Decreasing costs and increasing output’. From the exercise the students understood that assigning each task to minimally qualified workers reduces labour costs. Moreover, they easily comprehended that it required little effort learning how to do each step in the most efficient and fastest way. This led, as they also understood, to ‘Cheaper products’, yet, also to ‘More control on the workers’. From the example they saw how the knowledge and discretion of what to do in order to accomplish the work, in which order to do the different work steps, and at what pace to work, has now being removed from the workers. Finally I drew students’ attention to the circumstance that de-composition of work leads to both routinisation of work (amongst others, providing opportunities to replace humans with machines) and deskilling of workers.
Although being fairly simple, I think that this exercise enables students to directly observe and in a way ‘experience’ some aspects of Taylorism. Combining this exercise with the two Youtube videos “Frederick Taylor – The biggest bastard ever PT 1” and ” Frederick Taylor – The biggest bastard ever PT 2”, provides a good opportunity to bring the ideas and effects of Taylorism closer to the students.
Of course one could develop a more complex work process, however, this would also take more time in class. Overall this exercise took me about half an hour.