Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Human Cost of Efficiency & The Cult of Taylorism (2010)

The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy;
their second worst enemy is total efficiency.

Aldous Huxley [1894-1963], British author, 
noted for the novel, Brave New World (1932)

Dishonesty, unfairness, and injustice—the sins of times past—pale in comparison with the cardinal transgressions of inefficiency.
Janice Gross Stein, in The Cult of Efficiency

When I was a mechanical engineering student at McGill University in the late 1970s, in one of my first classes in a course called Mechanics, the professor assigned us homework: make a chart of the most efficient way to make breakfast. This was before the era of  personal computers, and thus we all made what was called a PERT chart, shorthand for Project Evaluation and Review Technique.
We found the result fascinating and exciting, learning how to do things in an efficient way, no small matter for budding engineers. In other courses, we learned about many methods of making machines and systems more efficient, using particular time-honoured engineering equations and formulas to determine results.

Later on, while working in industry, I learned more about project management. The PERT chart and the Critical Path Method, or CPM, form the basis of scientific management of large-scale projects. Both these methods look at the tasks in completing a given project, especially the time needed to complete each task, and identifying the minimum time needed to complete the total project. In other words, combining efficiency and productivity, at lease from a time-management point of view.

Frederick Taylor gets much of the credit for bringing a science to management, and his methods of efficiency as it relates to production is called Taylorism, a theory of scientific management popular in the 1880s and '90s. Mr. Taylor is credited with advancing the causes of production efficiency by conducting time and motion studies, among his other initiatives.

These combined with rational analysis led him to determine the best method for performing particular task. So, each task was broken down to its basic, or discrete form—similar to the way a computer program is written. This method can be likened to a PERT chart to track human efficiency.

Taylorism: A machinist at the Tabor Company, a firm where Frederick Taylor's consultancy
was applied to practical purposes in about 1905.

Source: Walter Hebeisen.
While Taylorism is no longer practiced in its purest form, the replacements bear a strong resemblance to their progenitor. Now, I agree that engineers ought to know all about efficiency, particularly how it relates to machines and mechanical systems.But the cult of efficiency has gone further than measurement of machine efficiency and performance.

Efficiency (and its sisters, accountability and productivity) have become the rules of operation in administrative management and human bookkeeping. (For an argument on humanity, see an earlier post: The Human use of Human Beings.) This is particularly striking today in how governments use such words to demonstrate that they are sound fiscal managers. (Yet, you will rarely see an engineer in high public-service or ministerial position who understands the meaning of such words and their primary application to machines and systems.)

In other words, in a perversion of machine efficiency and engineering practices, managers and government administrators have decided to use the principles of manufacturing administration to human administration and management. In her book, The Cult of Efficiency (House of Anansi Press: 2001), Janice Gross Stein, shows how the cult of efficiency has taken on a life of its own, with its dogma and rituals, unconnected to the needs of dignity and humanity.

Efficiency becomes a means to no real end, a number on some chart, quickly forgotten, showing how efficient one has become. It sounds absurd, and if seems like a parody from a Monthy Python skit, it ought to.

Even so, the drive for efficiency is real and done with religious zeal, as if it truly mattered. It is done on faith without thinking deeply about why we ought to be more efficient in all areas of our human existence. "The language of efficiency shapes our public as well as our private lives," says Janice Gross Stein, a professor of political science and director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. "Those who provide our most important public goods are expected to do so efficiently."

Such is the expectation. In her book, Prof Stein gives a real-life example that many of us can sadly relate to. She describes what happens after her 85-year-old  mother is hospitalized for a broken hip and has surgery to repair it. During this period, the author and her sister are frantically looking for a place for their mother to reside, where, as the author puts it. "she could live with safety and dignity":
On the seventh day after the procedure, the discharge coordinator caught me in the hospital corridor, my mother was ready for release, and the coordinator wanted to know what arrangements we had been able to make. I told her that we were doing our best, but that we would need more time. This was not what she wanted to hear. "Your mother is now a negative statistic for this unit." she said in frustration. "Every additional day she remains in hospital, she drives our efficiency ratings down."
Never had I thought of my mother as a "negative statistic." Even as I raged against the stinging insult, at the conversion of the whole person into a negative number, I knew that I could not hold the coordinator responsible for anything other than her truthfulness. As a result of growing insistence on efficiency, her unit had been given seven days to discharge a geriatric patient after a fractured femur.

No doubt, such are a sign of the times. People have become a number, a negative number in the worst of cases. Human dignity has, in the minds of the efficiency cultists and the scientific management theorists, has no place to call home in statistical charts.
I sense that words like dignity, fairness and justice have been deemed inefficient and an unnecessary waste of time, as these universal traits, as it were, are not easy to quantify and place on a chart. Yet, it is these same principles that hold our society together. Their absence in our lives and places of work would be noticeable, like missing a good friend. We would be poorer for it.

One of the best thought experiments is to look at a principle and see how it operates in the extreme. So, consider an organization that places great value in efficiency or is highly efficient. I suspect that you would agree with me that such a place is a tyranny, an enemy of freedom and human decency, an unpleasant place for humans, animal or any sentinel being.

Now, do the same thought experiment with values like decency, dignity, fairness and sincerity. Such universal values are appealing, yet not universally practiced. Yet, they are the values we want and treasure in society. Not efficiency, productivity and the like, which benefit the few.

Thus, it's time to put away all those charts and measurements of people and start looking at how to motivate and lead people in a way that treasures such universal values, and, namely, to do so by example. As someone once said, we do not need more efficiency, but more leadership: “Efficiency tends to deal with Things. Effectiveness tends to deal with People. We manage things, we lead people.”

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