Why is Taylorism an inappropriate theory of motivation for engineers within a modern workplace setting?
Motivating employees is an important role for managers. In the past, as the work of Frederick Taylor illustrated, motivation theory linked very closely to pay and output. Individuals now need to be motivated in a completely different way.
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Taylorism makes people work to the pace of machines to increase production (output); it’s premised on "one best way" to work. Employees are paid to produce, not to think. Linking pay to output seemed logical and still has some value today.
Employees had to keep up with the production machines. Think of the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy is in a chocolate manufacturing plant trying to keep up with the conveyor belt that goes faster and faster. Unable to keep up, she stuffs the chocolates in her shirt, pockets, mouth, etc. so she doesn't get yelled at for chocolates slipping by. By the end of the episode, Lucy's productivity has fallen below what it was when the conveyor belt was going more slowly. If pay per product were the motivator, her motivation would have slipped badly by the time she was done.
For many years, employees did try to keep up as the manufacturing pace increased. Over time, quality suffered as employees took shortcuts and even missed problems because the machines moved too fast to keep up. Pay was often a motivator, but the point of diminishing returns can result, where it begins to cost too much to add more production and where motivation goes down as employees realize that every time they reach a goal, the goal is increased and they will never keep up. The "goal" keeps moving.
Production environments today do not typically follow the "one best way" for everything philosophy. Nor do they focus on pay for output as the top motivator. The Saturn Division of GM (link below) is an example of a new production environment philosophy that, in 1985, was a huge step away from GM's typical way of producing cars. The difference was that employees were involved in the process, being asked to use their brains instead of just being "tools" that had to keep up with the machines. One of the most motivating aspects of this new way of doing business was that any Saturn production worker could "stop the line." That meant they could shut down the production line if they spotted a flaw or ran into trouble. The result for Saturn was a product that employees were proud of and worked very hard to produce as cost-effectively as possible while maintaining high quality. Their motivation was high because of factors beyond pay for output.
Engineering is not about producing physical products in a production environment. Among other things, engineers design physical products that get used in a production line. But much of their job requires thinking. The "creative process" is very different from the production process. Taylorism requires people to work to the pace of a machine, without thinking about how to do the job; somebody else has already done their thinking for them. Engineers need to sit and think or even dream about new ways to do things. While engineers must produce their product (designs) on a deadline and within some parameters, one good design that reduces overall cost of producing a product may be more valuable to a company than several designs that do not produce as much cost-savings. The important, measurable result is not qualitative product but is quantitative product. Motivating people for quantitative results is very different from what Taylorism values.
While I won't get into the specifics, you can do a more thorough analysis of what motivation may work for engineers by looking into Maslow and Herzberg, among others, for more information.
I would argue that techniques similar to those of Taylorism are very rarely appropriate for motivating skilled workers. In modern times, engineers are skilled workers who must work creatively with their brains. This is not really encouraged by Taylorism.
Taylorism is really best used on physical tasks. It determines how to accomplish those tasks most quickly and efficiently. It is not clear to me that you could use such techniques to make "brain work" or creative work be done more efficiently or more quickly. For this reason, I think Taylorism should not be applied to engineers in a modern workplace.
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