Increasing exploitation from Taylorism to Toyota and Lean

Printer-friendly version

Governments everywhere are cutting jobs, services and wages in the attempt to reduce sovereign debt. Sometimes they still increase borrowing, but that’s another story.

In Britain, in August, the government announced the success of its efficiency savings for the year 2011/12. Included in the list of savings were reduced spending on consultants, cutting staff, cutting services, stopping IT projects, making more processes digital, renegotiating with suppliers, reducing building costs, avoiding major projects, and other forms of avoiding waste.

In the campaign against waste in the public sector there has been a widespread introduction of what are known as Lean practices. These are based on the Toyota production system. It could be argued that the need to recall millions of Toyota vehicles in recent years was not a good advertisement for such a way of working, but governments have a habit of following fashions in such things.

In dealing with waste, the Lean/Toyota approach means eliminating, among other things: unnecessary product/file movements, people moving more than is needed, unnecessary waiting, overproduction, duplication, over-processing, and defects that have to be fixed (get it right first time). In practice it means a good old fashioned time and motion study of all working practices, so that time is spent more and more on productive activity. Efficiency savings end up in focussing on individual workers and how much the employer can get out of them.

Taylor against laziness

That efficiency savings should be among the watchwords of modern governments would not have surprised Frederick Winslow Taylor whose Principles of Scientific Management was published in the US just over a hundred years ago in 1911. Taylor’s approach to getting the most out of workers was brutal but effective. In the 1880s he was able to reduce the number of workers shovelling coal at the Bethelem Steel Works from 500 to 140 without loss of production. Every part of a work process was timed with the aim of identifying what could be omitted from the process, and which workers should take on what task.

In the Principles Taylor had a very low view of workers – “the natural laziness of man is serious”. But he also knew that straight repression was not the best way to exploit workers. He described his approach as scientific, but it was as much ideological: “One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. … Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.” In the case of handling pig iron the best candidate for the job “was a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do most kinds of laboring work, even.”

Critics of the Taylorist method saw it as dehumanising in the way it exploited, deskilled and alienated workers. In reality “Scientific management did not - as Taylor liked to claim - ensure that workers ‘look upon their employers as the best friends they have in the world (!)’ Rather, it sowed class conflict on an epic scale” (Mike Davis Describing the wave of strikes in the US between 1909 and 1913 Davis says that “It is particularly significant that the storm centers of these strikes were located in the industries being rationalized by scientific management and the introduction of new mass-assembly technologies”. This is hardly surprising as Taylor wanted workers to "do what they are told to do promptly and without asking questions or making any suggestions." (quoted in Davis op cit). This goes against human nature: unlike machines people are questioning and creative. Not for nothing did Lenin denounce Taylorism as the “enslavement of man to the machine”.

Exploitation and efficiency

However, following the overthrow of the Russian state in 1917, Lenin thought that capitalist production methods could be adopted. In The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government Lenin wrote: “The Russian is a bad worker compared with people in advanced countries. It could not be otherwise under the tsarist regime and in view of the persistence of the hangover from serfdom. The task that the Soviet government must set the people in all its scope is - learn to work. The Taylor system, the last word of capitalism in this respect, like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analysing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field.” This approach, along with the militarisation of labour and one-man management, seemed appropriate to some Bolsheviks in a period when the young Soviet Republic was surrounded and fighting for its life in war against the White armies and their imperialist backers. Other Bolsheviks, especially Left Communists like Ossinski, opposed the introduction of such methods, which undermined the capacity of the working class to direct production and was one of the factors that exacerbated the gulf and ultimately the conflict between workers and the Soviet state.

Taylorism was dictated by the needs of capitalist exploitation but in its pure form it proved to be inefficient in drawing on workers’ talent and potential. In time the bourgeoisie recognised the inadequacies in Taylorism, and crude Taylorist methods were mostly deemed obsolete by the 1930s. This didn’t, however, mean the end of time and motion measurement.

Among newer management theories have been the Theory X and Theory Y that were introduced by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. Theory X assumes that workers are lazy and will only respond to the carrot and stick, to reward and punishment. Theory Y relies on workers’ self-motivation. Workers have to identify with the needs of their employers and bring their own initiatives to the work process, so that they end up taking the lead in their own exploitation.

Today, with the Lean practices introduced into major departments of the British civil service (including HMRC, DWP, MOJ, and MOD), workers have ‘efficiency savings’ as an integral part of their job. There are regular meetings (often daily) on work priorities; these are held standing up, for reasons of efficiency. Workers time the work processes, identify forms of waste, and propose changes in work practices. This ‘bottom-up’ approach goes along with an increasing emphasis on management being described as ‘leaders’. Efficiency savings are made from workers’ suggestions, the ‘leaders’ try to enforce impossible targets, and decide whose post is next to be eliminated.

As part of the precariousness of employment workers must now worry not only about losing their jobs, but also have to propose measures which, in the name of efficiency, might put them out of work. Human creativity and ingenuity can be directed towards the greatest of achievements, but they are manipulated or crushed within the brutality of capitalist social relations.  

Car 7/9/12


Recent and ongoing: