Thursday, January 31, 2002

Lazy Workers

Scientific Management
The workers on the first Ford assembly line spoke more than 50 languages, and many of them could barely speak English.[1] It was in this context that Frederick W. Taylor’s book, The Principles of Scientific Management, was published in 1911.[2]

Taylor believed that laborers were uneducated and lazy, reflecting the prevailing thinking of the time. To increase productivity, he proposed the ‘science’ of decomposing tasks into their smallest components, timing and planning each micro-task, and telling the worker exactly how to do each task. Taylor admitted that his methods were inappropriate for educated craftsmen or even intelligent laborers.[3]

Scientific Management was the beginning of the separation of planning from execution. Prior to Ford’s assembly line, automobiles were assembled and maintained by skilled craftsmen. Ford first developed interchangeable parts, then developed a method to have them assembled by interchangeable laborers. After all, Ford’s turnover was 380% in 1913, so it was necessary to give laborers a job they could learn in just a few minutes.

The NUMMI Experiment
In 1982, GM closed it’s Fremont plant, which had the worst productivity and absenteeism record in the company. In 1983, a Toyota and GM re-opened the same plant and hired back the same workers. New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) was managed by Toyota-trained management. They borrowed widely from Frederick Taylor in areas of work measurement, but with one major difference. Instead of industrial engineers, small work teams were formed and trained in work measurement and analysis methods. Workers designed their own jobs, and continually worked to improve their own performance. In two years, the same facility with the same workers was operating at twice the productivity and quality, better of any other GM plant. Absenteeism and drug abuse on the job had virtually disappeared, and the plant was being expanded.[4]

The Problem: Separation of Planning from Execution
Lean Production was the end of the separation of planning from execution. The fundamental change at the NUMMI plant was the involvement of the workers in the design and improvement of their own work. ‘Holding back knowledge and effort (has been) repeatedly noted by industrial sociologists as a salient feature of all mass-production systems.’[5] The critical difference in Lean Production was the direct engagement of the workers in improving the process.

Lean Production does not require extraordinary people and is certainly not without discipline. It is build on the principle of a learning environment, where small, educated teams work toward an objective using the basic scientific method: experiment, measure the results, see if it’s an improvement, and if it is, go with it, if not try something else. Don’t guess, gather data.

The fundamental difference between mass production and lean production is the separation of the planning activity from the execution activity. In the NUMMI plant, work planning was done by the workers, which resulted in an extremely short feedback loop that was continually correcting toward the desired set point. In the former GM plant, work planning was done by industrial engineers resulting in open loop control.

The Solution: Closed Loop Control
Similarly, Just-in-Time provides for work planning at the point of execution, with extremely short feedback loops overseen by the workers, who exercise ultimate control. Contrast this to MRP systems, which is divorced from the workers and provides open loop control (if it provides any control at all). These days, MRP systems are used as overall planning systems, while detailed scheduling is done with the work-level pull systems.

The only way to get closed loop control is to have workers plan the process as well as execute it. The separation of planning from execution comes from a paradigm which regards workers as uneducated and lazy. The integration of planning and execution recognizes that given the proper training, leadership and objectives, workers are more capable of designing and improving their processes than any unengaged organization, be it an industrial engineering office, a materials control office or a project office.

1. The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production, by Womack, James P., Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, New York: Rawson and Associates; 1990, page 31.

2. The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor, Frederick W., first published as an essay in 1911, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1919, available as a Dover republication printed in 1998.

3. Taylor, Frederick W., Scientific Management - Comprising Shop Management, The principles of Scientific Management and Testimony before the Special House Committee, 1964, Harper and Row

4. “Time-and-Motion Regained”, Alder, Paul, Harvard Business Review (January-February, 1993) pp97-108.

5. The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production, by Womack, James P., Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, New York: Rawson and Associates; 1990, page 53.

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