Posted by Jay Livingston
I had thought that Taylorism was a quaint bit of early twentieth century history. You remember Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management,” the guy who reduced each job to its smallest component motions, timing out exactly the one best way a worker could do each step.
Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. As early as the 1950s, those principles were already the subject of some disdain. In the 1954 musical The Pajama Game, the principle comic role is Hinesy, the “time study man,” who sings “Think of the Time I Save.”
Taylorism might have been appropriate for work in factories, even pajama factories. From working with a machine, it’s only a small step to working like a machine. But in the service sector, workers deal with actual human beings (customers), so it makes little sense to try to impose the dehumanizing style of Taylorism.
Or so I thought. Earlier this season, the Wall Street Journal reported on another Taylor – Ann – which had installed the Ann Taylor Labor Allocation System, ATLAS.
Ann Taylor spent a year studying labor efficiencies. It established standards for how long it should take for employees to complete certain tasks: three seconds to greet a shopper; two minutes to help someone trying on clothing; 32 seconds to fold a sweater; and most importantly, five minutes to clinch a sale.The computerized system clocks sales per hour for each employee so that managers can cut back on the hours of less “productive” employees. “Each Wednesday, the new system generates the following week’s schedules, broken into 15-minute increments for maximum efficiency.” Some employees wound up with only a three-hour shift, a ten-hour week.
The consequences were predictable. Labor costs went down, employee dissatisfaction went up. Some workers quit, but that was before the current economic debacle. Strange, but for some reason the workers didn’t like their every minute being measured for efficiency. As John Gibbons, a sort of twenty-first century Taylor, says. “There’s been a natural resistance to thinking about human beings as pieces in a puzzle rather than individuals,” but he adds that when it comes to “clear methods of measurement [i.e. Taylorism], it’s a natural transition to apply it to human resources as well.” Natural somehow isn’t the word I would have chosen for this transition.
It’s not that Ann Taylor wasn’t thinking about employee reactions. That’s why they gave the system that cute name ATLAS. It “was important because it gave a personality to the system, so [employees] hate the system and not us.”
Ann isn’t alone. This week, the Journal reported on similar applications of Taylorism in retail – operating the cash register, folding clothes, making sales.
So the next time you’re shopping at Ann Taylor, the Gap, Wal-Mart, or any other retail chain store, remember, as Hinesy in The Pajama Game says, seconds are ticking, girls, seconds are ticking.