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This post is for Kike, my faithful university class mate

25 Feb

[Today] the challenges that so many companies are making are more than a response to “globalization”. They denote nothing less than the obsolence of the corporate model many of us have grown up with. For some pople it won’t be easy to let go of old concepts, old hierarchies, old sources of power-but it’s mandatory to think anew.

-Vernon R. Loucks, Jr. Chairman and CEO

Baxter International, in Review, 1990.

Taylorism and Professional Education.

“Objective observers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to consider the manufacturing process as a whole rather than as an object for piecewise suboptimizaition. This holistic, or system viewpoint must include manufacturer’s relations with subcontractors and suppliers as well as customers… If manufacturing engineers and manufacturing operations managers are to contribute effectively to the redesign of the workplace, it seems obvious that their professional training must include a recognition of the new integrated manufacturing system reality and how to deal with it effectively…

The American manufacturing environment is now in a rapid state of change. Yet, our business schools and engineering schools have not yet begun to provide the leadership that this restructuring of the American manufacturing environment demands. Some observers believe that American manufacturing managers have been late coming to the party, that they have been slow to recognize the advantages of Japanese and, to a lesser degree, European developments… As I see the situation, American business leaders are now well in advance of engineering and business schools in recognizing and practicing total quality principles, participative management, worker empowerment, and the like. If this perception is correct, why is it so? My answer will be that American professional school faculties have not abandoned Taylorism.”

Taylorism

Frederick Winston Taylor is high in the pantheon of American engineering heroes (Copley, 1923). In his obsessive optimization of individual rigid separation of thinking from doing, Taylor is the paradigmatic manufacturing engineer. Taylor is important, not merely because he made revolutionary contributions to the manufacturing canon, but also because the general style he set became the universal paradigm for American engineering practice and for engineering education, and remains so even today.

I intend in this paper to focus on how the elements of Taylorism are applied in the workplace and in the engineering classroom and why this environment is no longer right for modern America. I hold that Taylorism continues to be a major obstacle in our path to manufacturing efficiency and that it must be replaced as the central element of our engineering educational philosophy as well.”

The essential elements of Taylorism

“What are the essential elements of “Tayloristic” engineering practice that currently inhibit technical progress? I suggest that the following seven are critical:

  1. Analytic bottom-up approach, where analytic here is used in the classical sense of “breaking into components parts or elements.”
  2. The absence of goal-definition phase in normal engineering design practice.
  3. Engineering practice in a vacuum, without regard to human factors.
  4. The hierarchical, nonprofessional style of current American engineering practice.
  5. The fantasy of “value-free design”.
  6. The traditional Taylor practice of separating thinking from doing
  7. Strong emphasis on individual reward for individual effort.

Analogous to Taylor’s procedure of breaking down the manufacturing process into elemental steps, the first step in the engineering design process is the careful division of the overall task into simple sub elements and assigning these parts to individuals or teams for detailed design. This is so simple and obvious, and it works so well in certain practical design tasks and in engineering design education, that we may fail to understand the deeper implications of this step.

But these are only a few of the more obvious implications of the analytic “bottom-up” Tayloristic approach to engineering. One other implication may be somewhat less obvious. The classically trained engineering “bottom-upper” accepts the goals of a project as given. Such engineering goals are embodied in the “specification sheet”. How could it be otherwise? The classically trained engineer may ask. How can one design or manufacture something without a specification sheet or a blueprint? This question may be perfectly logical when applied to a conventional, well understood object but irrational when we face the unknown. By insisting on a well developed and complete set of specifications before one can begin the design and production of a new and untried object, the engineer removes himself from the most exciting, creative step; helping to set the specifications in the first place. But this is exactly the way we currently tech engineers to think and to design.

In engineering education, the Tayloristic approach seems so obvious that it is universal. We begin with the simplest mechanisms and equations, then proceed step-by-step to more complex devices and mathematics, in a bottom-up manner. Thus, the budding engineer is taught without words to accept engineering reality as susceptible to decomposition into simpler sub-units best handled in isolation, a hierarchical management approach with professors as “bosses” who “think” and students as “workers” who “do,” and an absence of discussion of goals, except for questions that are meant to elicit what the boss wants.

If engineering educators inculcate reverence for inviolate specifications, as we continue to do, we are also implying that goals are external to the design process and are to be set by someone else. This absence of the goal-definition phase is the second major distinguishing feature of conventional Tayloristic engineering practice that is crippling our national attempt to regain manufacturing leadership in world markets.

The third crippling attribute is the engineering practice in a mechanistic vacuum, without regard to human factors. Human factors must enter into the design, production, use, and especially product retirement. Yet, none of these essential steps is considered currently in engineering education. Humans will use the objects we design and build, but we engineers easily divorce ourselves from responsibility to these human users if we can.

A fourth debilitating attribute of current American engineering practice is its hierarchical, nonprofessional attitude. Conventionally trained engineers accept that they do not have a say in setting specifications for the design object, or in how the product may be manufactured, or in providing graceful retirement from service. They accept that they are not professionals with an overarching professional responsibility to society for their work. They accept the fact that they are employees and thus should be told what to do. And we engineering educators seem to agree. For the mots part, we are not registered professional engineers, and we do not encourage our students to look upon themselves as professionals in training, with professional registration as the confirmation of professional status.

The fifth element in current American engineering practice that gives me concern may grow out of the dehumanizing attitude mentioned as number three above. It is the fantasy that engineers are engaged in value-free design. This can lead to the belief that designers and builders have no responsibility for the use to which our products are put.

One of the primary features of Taylorism is insistence on a rigid separation of thinking from doing. Taylor prohibited participation by production workers in the organization, planning and direction of the manufacturing process. Taylor required his workers to do exactly as they were told to do and no more. This authoritarian stance is carried over into engineering education through its rigid exclusion of students from participation in the planning, organization, and direction of the education process. We all learn by example, and this is one of those debilitating attitudes engineers learn without being conscious of it.

Individual reward for individual effort in the marketplace implies an emphasis on piecework, separate post production quality inspection, and a resistance to the team concept. For example, auto factory line foremen long waged war on any sort of worker interaction on the line. Even talking was forbidden in the early days, and this clash with the traditional American value of mutual support no doubt hastened unionization. IN engineering education, this attribute causes us currently to focus excessively on individual student performance and active discouragement of student team formation. As a result engineering graduates have little or no experience in team building or cooperative effort. Thus, when they do run into the need for team effort, many engineers exhibit resistance, discomfort, and clumsiness at interpersonal professional relationships. Engineers feel the “need” to know who is the boss and for a strong management structure. The “leaderless group” leaves them distinctly uncomfortable (Gibson, 1981). Engineering faculty members often carry this individualism even further. I have been present at a number of faculty promotion and tenure committee meetings at which it was seriously proposed to discount publications according to the number of authors on the paper. Under this concept a two author paper would find each author awarded half a publication, and so on. Unconscious Taylorism in engineer is, I believe, responsible for the sabotage of many participative management programs”

This text has been extracted from John E. Gibson (1992) Manufacturing Systems; foundations of world-class practice. Pp 149-157.  National Academy Press; Washinton, 1992.

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Posted by on February 25, 2010 in efficiency, Management, Manufacturing

 

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