Friday, March 14, 2014

Human Scale and the Cog

Taken to its utmost extreme, efficiency has proven itself to be less than amenable to the human scale.  Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer cum management consultant, became famous in the late 19th century for introducing management methods that precisely pursued the maximization of efficiency.  His method, however, has become synonymous with the enmity for the human element in production processes.  Taylor's approach involved assessing procedures and processes to calibrate man, implement, workload and other inputs to determine the right combination to achieve the maximum efficiency.  The "success" of his management theories were bolstered in part by ensuring worker dissent was overlooked and ignoring other human elements that would normally get reasonable hearing in the workplace or other locale.  It concluded on the ideal workload a labourer could or ought to move with, say, each turn of the shovel, but it may not have taken into account repetitive movement injuries or other demands on the body and likely did not weigh boredom in the calculation either.

Charlie Chaplin in one of several iconic moments in 
Times, 1936
With the passing of the past 100 years, Taylorism has not aged well.  Taylorist calculations figured in determining the work efficiencies of the concentration camps during World War II and over time, Taylor's theories and methods met with the required checks and balances to ensure greater equity and fairness in the workplace rather than the assumption that the labourer was another inanimate variable in the production equation.

Still, the balance between human well-being and the pursuit of efficiency tilts too often away from human interests, especially as competition between countries increases and more industries or corporations take advantage of cheaper labour in less developed countries.

Whether it is a matter of created efficiencies that allow jobs to be completed by lower skilled employees or finding a location where legislation is more lenient the pursuit of efficiency does risk tilting away from the needs of human dignity and often well-being as well.  That was the case in the sweatshops of Bangladesh in April 2013, where the pursuit of cost effectiveness in clothing manufacturing was mediated enough middle men to distance the brands, corporations and consumers from the labour and working conditions.  That is just the most graphic instance of this and there are instances of sweatshop conditions, use of child labour and labour disputes against First World manufacturers simmering on the back pages to indicate that the pursuit of cost effectiveness, mislabelled as efficiency, often leads to strife or the most dire of inclusions on the ledger sheet.

There ought to be a suspicion that efficiency has been achieved at a high and hidden cost, but the conscience is often ignored in favour of the numbers when the results are, indeed, to good to be true. As the pressures inherent with the pursuit of profit margins, larger corporations pressure their suppliers and contractors to work within smaller and smaller profit margins while being audited as well for their labour standards.  The profit margins win out all too often and the basic threat to the human scale is to overlook the limit of not what a person or group of factory workers can or ought to be capable of, but rather what can reasonably and fairly asked of them on a day in and day out basis?  As with Taylorist efficiencies in the later 19th century, the glowing outcomes end up being the result of coercion rather than an arrangement the respects the limits of people are capable of and hide the circumstances of their "achievement."

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