In the 1920's industry was revolutionized by Frederick Taylor's ideas about workplace efficiency. His 1911 work, Principles of Scientific Management, was groundbreaking. The idea that every task could be studied with a view toward process optimization caught on and is still in vogue in many circles today.
Improvements in efficiency meant the creation of a thriving industrial sector that created thousands of jobs, feeding thousands of families. Over time, especially in industrial settings, the American workplace became more and more like a well-oiled machine, but there was a catch.
When we ask living, breathing human beings to behave like cogs in a machine for very long, we deny them mental stimulation. We inadvertently crush the spirit of creativity that leads to job satisfaction and gives life meaning. Today's workers are more highly skilled and better educated than Taylor's subjects. They value their sense of contribution and derive a good portion of their self-worth from what they do for a living.
To keep people engaged these days requires more than detailed instructions on the "one best way" to accomplish a given task.
Like many students of organization development, I was quick to judge Taylor as a force for ill, based on my initial exposure. Yet a colleague reminded me recently that Taylor's focus on efficiency is also credited with improving safety on the factory floor. (I am reminded of the grandfather I never knew, who lost his arm in a furniture factory accident. So I offer a respectful nod to Taylor's ghost for that contribution.)
While few of us would take it to Taylor's extremes in the modern workplace, maximizing efficiency remains a common theme of our blogs, books, and articles to this day.
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