Sky Full of Bacon


Taylorism Street

You read a million things on a subject and then you finally read the one that explains it all. Michael Barone, veteran political analyst, explains why GM and its unions have become a marriage made in Hell:

Unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.

The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea. The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That’s not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was “one best way” to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

Taylor’s work was regarded as gospel by many industrial managers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, a time when many factory workers were recent immigrants, often with a less than perfect command of English. Auto assembly lines were organized on Taylorite principles to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of low-skill workers. And squeeze some more…

Interestingly, management often sought to deny that things were run this way at all— hence the video clip at the top of the page, from a 1936 industrial film called Master Hands, which seeks to show that GM workers (right at the moment of the violent strikes in the late 30s) were not interchangeable automatons but skilled artisans, like sculptors or bootmakers.  (The conclusion naturally being that Michelangelo didn’t need a union.)  (Note the additional irony that Master Hands, beautifully made corporate propaganda, shows so much influence of Soviet filmmaking.)

Barone draws the expected conclusion that the unions are what keeps the automakers from changing:

Japanese automakers… managed their plants not according to Taylorism but by giving their workers more autonomy and more responsibility—by treating them like sentient human beings and not like dumb animals as Frederick Taylor taught. The Detroit Three by all accounts I have seen were slow to learn from this—and were even slower to apply the lessons the Japanese taught—because of Wagnerism. Japanese management required cooperation between managers and workers. Wagnerism insisted that all interaction between managers and workers be conducted on an adversarial basis. The 5,000 pages of work rules mean that GM can’t manage the way Toyota does…

Taylorism is pretty much dead in our society; no automaker free to make a choice chooses it as a way to manage its workforce. But its antidote, Wagnerism, remains.

I’m not so sure this is true— that Taylorism is dead.  Watch the Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” and you’ll see an awful lot of conveyor-belt, repetitive-motion production that sure doesn’t look like kaizen management in action.  But let’s accept that cars are not made in quite such a robotic function (except for the parts made by actual robots).

Nevertheless, there is clearly at least one industry that still has Taylor’s fingerprints all over it—one which a high percentage of Americans will have had some experience with, mostly in their youth.  Fast food.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school and my freshman year of college (the sum total of my professional culinary experience, incidentally, in case anyone was wondering).  And the whole secret of McDonald’s processes was that they were broken down into such simplified, repetitive processes that even a slackjawed, inattentive teenager could be instructed how to turn out perfectly average Quarter Pounders in about a half hour of training. And once learned, the processes were indelible— almost 30 years later, I could walk into a McD’s during lunch rush today and take over the Quarter Pounder grill without a hitch.

That this was something less than really learning to cook was a lesson driven home to me when I tried to get a summer job the next year at a Denny’s-type coffeeshop— and it was explained to me that by the time I was trained to be even a barely competent grillman, I’d be leaving to go back to school. Ironically, though I had to recognize the truth of what he said— I hadn’t learned to cook, I’d learned to cook Quarter Pounders— there was one part of McD’s menu where the desire to impose Taylorist processes had run into the customer’s expectations, and real cooking was required.

Breakfast. Sure, the Egg McMuffin might have been a pure McD’s automa-food invention— eggs cooked to unnatural circles, each yolk broken on purpose so that there will never be an issue of customers wanting it runny in the middle or not. But the pancakes are pretty much pancakes, like at any other place; the scrambled eggs are pretty much scrambled eggs, and not screwing them up means exercising a grillman’s judgement as to when things are done and how to arrange them on the styrofoam plate. We might have been Taylor-trained baboons in every other area of the menu, but at least in this one small corner of the menu, we were Master Hands.

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3 Responses to “Taylorism Street”

  1. Eddie Lakin Says:

    good piece. does mcdonald’s even have an actual ‘grill’ on the premises? i’d be surprised if they did. i think everything is cooked in those little plastic trays these days, except, of course, the stuff that goes into the fryer.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    Well, I would hope they didn’t rip out 10 million grills from existing stores. But they have probably changed the processes to accommodate the whole microwave-reheating aspect, so they’re cooking stuff more ahead and holding it.

  3. Eddie Lakin Says:

    you may be right, i’m not sure. anyway, that’s kind of beside the point of your very good post, comparing the way mcdonalds functions to the ‘assembly line’ style of car manufacturing.