How relevant is Taylorism for businesses in the 21st century?
Taylorism takes its name from Frederick Winslow Taylor (March 20, 1856–March 21, 1915), an American engineer who was concerned with improving the efficiency of manufacturing. The term generally refers to a form of scientific management concerned with efficient production.
Taylorism was initially concerned with assembly lines in manufacturing. It pioneered the use of time and motion studies designed to reorganize production lines to make workers more efficient. Even a few seconds improvement in the time it takes to do a small task, such as attaching a button to a shirt or welding two parts together, can save companies thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a year. This is just as true now as it was in the early twentieth century.
Artificial intelligence and the massive data processing capabilities of modern computers have allowed Taylorism to expand from manufacturing to the service sector and for the level of monitoring and analysis of worker productivity to increase dramatically. Amazon's employee tracking wristbands and the use of GPS and other technology to monitor Uber drivers are examples of what is sometimes called the "new Taylorism" or "digital Taylorism." These forms of digital Taylorism allowed unprecedented analytic abilities and productivity improvements, but they also raise questions of ethics and privacy and are seen by many advocacy groups as intrusive and exploitative.
Taylorism is just as relevant today as it ever was for many businesses, but there are a growing number of businesses for whom Taylorism is not and cannot be relevant.
Taylorism was the idea that workplaces should be analyzed scientifically so as to devise ways to make the work go more quickly. Consultants following Taylor’s ideas did things like looking at the shape and size of shovels being used to shovel various things at a steel-producing plant. They found that it was more efficient to have different sizes and shapes of shovels for shoveling different things. What these people were doing was trying to make workplaces more efficient.
Today, firms that produce goods need to be just as efficient as ever. There is so much competition that firms have to be as efficient as possible. If they are not, they will be outcompeted and driven out of business. For such firms, Taylorism is still relevant.
However, there are many firms today that specialize in work that requires creativity and brain power, not just physical movements. For example, the creation of a new operating system like Windows 8 does not simply require efficient physical motion. Instead, it requires people to use their brains and to, at times, be creative. Taylorism is much less relevant for such firms because it is impossible to set up systems that guarantee creativity or that guarantee that people will think efficiently.
Taylorism is defined as a way of breaking every job down into simple sections that are easy for employees to learn and for employers to analyze. In other words, everybody plays their small part, and together, these small parts make a whole company that is ultra-efficient.
This system could still work really well in the 21st century in certain environments, such as a factory or an assembly line that uses people rather than machines. The problem with Taylorism in other 21st-century environments is that relatively few people have a job that only encompasses one responsibility. For example, a copywriter may be responsible for writing copy, ensuring that a voice-over artist is available for the recording of a radio advertisement, and covering for a receptionist during her lunch break. In the tough economic times in which we find ourselves, it is increasingly common to have a job that doesn't just entail one responsibility.
It seems as though the jobs to which Taylorism was best suited have largely been taken over by machines in the 21st century.