Taylorism and Professional Education
JOHN E. GIBSON
Objective observers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to consider the manufacturing process as a whole rather than as an object for piecewise suboptimization. This holistic, or systems viewpoint must include manufacturers' relations with subcontractors and suppliers as well as customers. The manufacturing system certainly must include the interrelationship of the physical manufacturing environment, manufacturing management, and the worker. If manufacturing engineers and manufacturing operations managers are to contribute effectively to the redesign of the workplace, it seems obvious that their professional training must include a recognition of the new integrated manufacturing system reality and how to deal with it effectively. In this paper we consider how to adjust the training and professional value set given business managers and engineers to become consistent with this modern reality.
The American manufacturing environment is now in a rapid state of change. Yet, our business schools and engineering schools have not yet begun to provide the leadership that this restructuring of the American manufacturing environment demands. Some observers believe that American manufacturing managers have been late coming to the party, that they have been slow to recognize the advantages of Japanese and, to a lesser degree, European developments. I believe that a more fundamental question is why leaders in American manufacturing practice have received little or no help in their struggle from the professional schools where they must
recruit the new generation of managers? As I see the situation, American business leaders are now well in advance of engineering and business schools in recognizing and practicing total quality principles, participative management, worker empowerment, and the like. If this perception is correct, why is it so? My answer will be that American professional school faculties have not abandoned Taylorism.
Frederick Winslow Taylor is high in the pantheon of American engineering heros (Copley, 1923). In his obsessive optimization of individual job shop operations, his disregard of the human side of enterprise, and his rigid separation of thinking from doing, Taylor is the paradigmatic manufacturing engineer. Taylor is important, not merely because he made revolutionary contributions to the manufacturing canon, but also because the general style he set became the universal paradigm for American engineering practice and for engineering education, and remains so even today.
I intend in this paper to focus on how the elements of Taylorism are applied in the workplace and in the engineering classroom and why this environment is no longer right for modern America. I hold that Taylorism continues to be a major obstacle in our path to manufacturing efficiency, and that it must be replaced as the central element of our engineering educational philosophy as well.
THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF TAYLORISM
What are the essential elements of “Tayloristic” engineering practice that currently inhibit technical progress? I suggest that the following seven are critical:
Analytic bottom-up approach, where analytic here is used in the classical sense of “breaking into component parts or elements.”
The absence of the goal-definition phase in normal engineering design practice.
Engineering practice in a vacuum, without regard to human factors.
The hierarchical, nonprofessional style of current American engineering practice.
The fantasy of “value-free design.”
The traditional Taylor practice of separating thinking from doing.
Strong emphasis on individual reward for individual effort.
Analogous to Taylor's procedure of breaking down the manufacturing process into elemental steps, the first step in the engineering design process
is the careful division of the overall task into simple subelements and assigning these parts to individuals or teams for detailed design. This is so simple and obvious, and it works so well in certain practical design tasks and in engineering design education, that we may fail to understand the deeper implications of this step.
It is clear that the Tayloristic process works best if the boundaries of the subunits are sharp and well-defined and interconnections are clear and separable. When devices demand extraordinarily tight tolerances, however, tighter even than tens of thousandths of an inch, we cannot break such complex and precise devices into subunits and assign the design and production to different teams. Nor is this good practice where interconnections may outnumber the subunits, or where boundaries may be somewhat tenuous.
Furthermore, we cannot leave the manufacturing engineer out of the design process. High-speed, precision production requires that the designer and the manufacturing manager work together in a team with the materials specialist. In the colorful terminology of one of my manufacturing manager friends, we must “ask” the material what it wants to do and how it wants to behave. Then we must “ask” production machines how they want to make the part.
But these are only a few of the more obvious implications of the analytic, “bottom-up” Tayloristic approach to engineering. One other implication may be somewhat less obvious. The classically trained engineering“bottom-upper” accepts the goals of a project as given. Such engineering goals are embodied in the “specification sheet.” How could it be otherwise? The classically trained engineer may ask. How can one design or manufacture something without a specification sheet or blueprint? This question may be perfectly logical when applied to a conventional, well-understood object but irrational when we face the unknown. By insisting on a well-developed and complete set of specifications before one can begin the design and production of a new and untried object, the engineer removes himself from the most exciting, creative step; helping to set the specifications in the first place. But this is exactly the way we currently teach engineers to think and to design.
In engineering education, the Tayloristic approach seems so obvious that it is universal. We begin with the simplest mechanisms and equations, then proceed step-by-step to more complex devices and mathematics, in a bottom-up manner. Thus, the budding engineer is taught without words to accept engineering reality as susceptible to decomposition into simpler sub-units best handled in isolation, a hierarchical management approach with professors as “bosses” who “think” and students as “workers” who “do,” and an absence of discussion of goals, except for questions that are meant to elicit what the boss wants.
An alternative and more reasonable approach to a new engineering problem, however, is the top-down approach, which moves from the general requirements to the specific. This is the essence of the systems method and it is a natural way in which to introduce engineering students, even freshmen, to the process of engineering design. But some engineering professors vehemently object to teaching engineering design in the first year or two of an engineering curriculum. They argue that without a complete understanding of the elements of design, that is conventions, protocols, and detailed analysis, engineering design cannot be done. Thus, they say, engineering design must be reserved to the final undergraduate year, as the capstone experience.
For bottom-uppers, design does not start with understanding the client 's needs, or with the environment within which the object is to function, or with an examination of the way people will use the object, or with the plans for the retirement of the object. Instead, design begins for bottom-uppers after the specifications are set, and stops with physical manufacture. Some might argue to the contrary, however, that the only truly professional element in the design process is interaction with the client to determine jointlythe operating environment and specifications of the object to be designed.
If engineering educators inculcate reverence for inviolate specifications, as we continue to do, we are also implying that goals are external to the design process and are to be set by someone else. This absence of the goal-definition phase is the second major distinguishing feature of conventional Tayloristic engineering practice that is crippling our national attempt to regain manufacturing leadership in world markets.
The third crippling attribute is engineering practice in a mechanisticvacuum, without regard to human factors. Human factors must enter into the design, production, use, and especially product retirement. Yet, none of these essential steps is considered currently in engineering education. Humans will use the objects we design and build, but we engineers easily divorce ourselves from responsibility to these human users if we can.
A fourth debilitating attribute of current American engineering practice is its hierarchical, nonprofessional attitude. Conventionally trained engineers accept that they do not have a say in setting specifications for the design object, or in how the product may be manufactured, or in providing for graceful retirement from service. They accept that they are not professionals with an overarching professional responsibility to society for their work. They accept the fact that they are employees and thus should be told what to do. And we engineering educators seem to agree. For the most part, we are not registered professional engineers, and we do not encourage our students to look upon themselves as professionals in training, with professional registration as the confirmation of professional status.
The fifth element in current American engineering practice that gives me concern may grow out of the dehumanizing attitude mentioned as num-
ber three above. It is the fantasy that engineers are engaged in value-freedesign. This can lead to the belief that designers and builders have no responsibility for the use to which our products are put.
One of the primary features of Taylorism is insistence on a rigid separation of thinking from doing. Taylor prohibited participation by production workers in the organization, planning, and direction of the manufacturing process. Taylor required his workers to do exactly as they were told to do and no more. This authoritarian stance is carried over into engineering education through its rigid exclusion of students from participation in the planning, organization, and direction of the education process. We all learn by example, and this is one of those debilitating attitudes engineers learn without being conscious of it.
Individual reward for individual effort in the workplace implies an emphasis on piecework, separate postproduction quality inspection, and a resistance to the team concept. For example, auto factory line foremen long waged war on any sort of worker interaction on the line. Even talking was forbidden in the early days, and this clash with the traditional American value of mutual support no doubt hastened unionization. In engineering education, this attribute causes us currently to focus excessively on individual student performance and active discouragement of student team formation. As a result engineering graduates have little or no experience in team building or cooperative effort. Thus, when they do run into the need for team effort, many engineers exhibit resistance, discomfort, and clumsiness at interpersonal professional relationships. Engineers feel the “need” to know who is the boss and for a strong management structure. The “leaderless group” leaves them distinctly uncomfortable (Gibson, 1981). Engineering faculty members often carry this individualism even further. I have been present at a number of faculty promotion and tenure committee meetings at which it was seriously proposed to discount publications according to the number of authors on the paper. Under this concept a two-author paper would find each author awarded half a publication, and so on.
Unconscious Taylorism in engineers is, I believe, responsible for the sabotage of many participative management programs.
WHEN DOES TAYLORISM WORK?
We know that Taylorism worked and worked well in the early part of this century. Can we be more specific about the economic or social conditions for which Taylorism is well suited? We should be able to examine the structure of American engineering curricula and ask “for what criteria are these programs optimum?” The idea is that the programs optimize for something, but not necessarily for desirable goals.
It is clear that for the most part, the faculties of accredited schools in
business and engineering are hardworking and dedicated individuals, possessing high professional skills and a deep interest in transferring their knowledge to students. Students in business and engineering are unusually dedicated and hardworking and above average in learning ability. Furthermore, the programs in both sectors have traditionally been well supported and generally have adequate resources. Thus, how could it be that such programs might be seen as suboptimum or even ineffective and possibly deleterious to the future economic health of the nation?
As one examines business and engineering curricula, it seems clear that on a bit-by-bit basis they are well done. Each course by itself seems to have clear goals and effective procedures for producing course-by-course optimization. For this the accreditation process deserves praise. But this academic process is patterned after the old Tayloristic suboptimization of individual operations on a manufacturing line with no thought for overall production efficiency.
Suppose we examine the features of Taylorism we have discussed and attempt to describe the world for which they seem appropriate. The bottom-up approach should work well in optimizing a standard process. If the process is operating properly, optimization of elements will result in further efficiency. One need not discuss objectives if the design objectives areuniversally accepted, as they are in a traditional organization that produces a traditional product or delivers a traditional service.
Absence of concern for human factors is to be expected where working and living conditions are primitive, as in a frontier community. Hierarchyappears when the worker is ignorant, untrained, uneducated, and the sameis true for separating thinking from doing. The value-free fantasy could develop if the values were so stable as to be taken for granted. Thus, it seems that Taylorism could work well if the products to be produced are conventional, the marketplace is stable and predictable, and workers are unskilled immigrants in whom the nation has made no educational investment. This does not describe the modern high-technology, rapidly changing world marketplace in which the United States must prosper. It does not describe a workplace that makes use of highly educated, socially advanced citizens.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
If we agree that the level of Taylorism in engineering education should be reduced, the following series of steps could prove effective. First, stakeholders should be consulted to determine an appropriate set of goals, and quantitative performance objectives (metrics) should be established for professional education. Participation in the study should be solicited from
industry and professional societies, the National Academy of Engineering, National Society of Professional Engineers, and professionals in practice.
The goals developed should not be limited to generalized platitudes. Rather the goals tree should be elaborated down to specific measurable, operational objectives. The elaboration needs to be carried down to the point at which it is possible to attach a quantitative performance measure to each subgoal. Measurement metrics must be developed and agreed upon, and then various solution options must be considered. This effort should not be aimed at dictating “the solution.” To do so would be to slip back into Taylorism. Rather it should aim at producing IF-THEN scenarios. That is, if a certain option profile or plan is adopted, then the following outcome is likely. Furthermore, because education is a process, we must dedicate our efforts toward eliminating the idea of a static, fixed “truth” and methods of teaching it, and move toward emphasizing continuous improvement in providing a quality product, where quality is determined by our customers and not by ourselves.
Without attempting to prejudge the action plan to be produced, I will risk making certain specific suggestions for consideration. These suggestions seem naturally to fall into the following four general categories, for each of which I suggest more specific tactics.
Empowerment of our professional students
Encouragement of cooperative student work practices
Participative management of the educational enterprise
Development of a supportive professional accreditation process
Empowerment of Our Professional Students
Our students should be encouraged to take charge of their own learning. The following tactics suggest themselves:
Encourage students to set and meet their own intermediate performance goals within each course.
Provide optional homework packages instead of making all required.
Let students take (computerized) examinations for self-diagnosis of knowledge gaps and provide suggested remedial practice material.
Put in place a program of self-paced instruction.
Encouragement of Cooperative Student Work Practices
Engineering education has overemphasized the Tayloristic practice of exclusively individual work and individual rewards. This training has inhibited cooperation in the workplace by graduate engineers. Encourage-
ment of cooperation here refers to cooperation not only among students but also among students and faculty members. Here are a few thought starters:
Encourage teamwork on homework with one submittal and one grade for a group.
Encourage advanced students to tutor beginning students for partial course credit.
Establish courses within the engineering curriculum in which student teams solve industrial and community problems for real clients.
Set up design juries of industrialists or national design competitions in required courses, thus turning faculty members into coaches and advisers for student teams under student leadership.
Participative Management of the Educational Enterprise
It is pure Taylorism to say to students that faculty members think, and students are the workers, thus they do (without thinking, unfortunately). How can we encourage engineering students to go into industry and help to manage participatively when they have been trained in an exclusively autocratic environment? Of course, overall course and program goals are set externally by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and by employers. That is not the issue. But how to meet these performance goals is the proper subject of participative interaction. Hence, the following suggestions:
Clearly establish necessary performance goals for each course.
After working through necessary required basic material, allow students to participate in choosing from among optional blocks of material such as more theory, alternative techniques, and application areas.
Appoint advanced students to course and program planning committees.
Development of a Supportive Professional Accreditation Process
ABET and its predecessor, the Engineers Council for Professional Development, have accomplished a great deal of good over the past 60 years, mostly with unpaid faculty volunteers. Now the professional accrediting process can be called upon to make further important contributions including the following leadership efforts.
Eliminate micromanagement of individual course content in inspection process in favor of measurement of achievement in overall courses and programs.
Involve ABET in developing coaching and training materials and programs for faculty in support of the conversion to participative management in engineering education.
Shift ABET attention from “inspecting quality in at the end of the line,” toward participative, cooperative empowerment of faculty (and students) in internalizing the unending quest for quality.
It appears to me that Taylorism is alive and well in the minds of engineering faculty throughout the nation. Furthermore, it appears that the unresponsive, change-resisting attitude exhibited by many engineers in American manufacturing practice is in large measure due to this primitive and ineffective educational paradigm.
I benefited from participative deliberations and advice from several of my faculty colleagues, including K. P. White and my research associate R. Mathieu, and from about 40 graduate students who read earlier drafts of this paper and engaged in vigorous criticism and advice. I wish also to thank Dale Compton for his comments, which improved the focus of the effort. It seems fair to say that this work product was an effort of a team operating in the Hersey-Blanchard P-Mode.