Taylorism – Ann Taylorism

November 20, 2008
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.

(Click on the chart to see a larger version.)

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.


Ralu said...

Yeah, it seems we slowly but surely transform ourselves intro robots

Anonymous said...

During my lifetime I know that most of these jobs will be replaced by robots. I like the self-check at stores. I would rather use a Redbox than go to Blockbuster. Most people I know like these things too. I really do not care if the burger I buy at McDonalds is made by a person or a machine as long as it does not have mayonnaise or cheese. While we are at it, I would rather that a robot make my cloths than someone getting paid nothing and being abused. A fully robotic service industry is inevitable, and its time is almost here. Soon our computers will reach a speed and number of processing cores that will enable the creation of any sort of robot we can think of. Eventually the robots will be able to design themselves. We cannot fight the future; we can only look for solutions to the obvious problems the transition to a fully robotic service industry will cause.

Jay Livingston said...

Anonymous, you're right, of course. More and more, we are dealing with machines for things that we used to get by dealing with people. As individuals we want to have control -- to interact only with those people that we choose to interact with. Would anyone mind if Ann Taylor were like the supermarket -- not just self check-out but, only the clothes and no salespeople? But what I (and lots of other people) what happens to society as we eliminate chance encounters, and what happens to us as individuals when we eliminate chance experiences?

N said...

Jay, your comment to anonymous is a very good question.

"What happens to society as we eliminate chance encounters, and what happens to us as individuals when we eliminate chance experiences?"

I doubt the retailers tracking efficiency and sales are considering questions like that.

Jay Livingston said...

N, Retailers aren't tracking it, but some social scientists are. There's a new book called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart based on research by a sociologist. But that's what the suburbs have always been about. When I was growing up in Mt. Lebanon, it was a conservative, white, upper-middle class enclave. This was before the Civil Rights law, and there were no known Negroes (as we would have called them then) living there, about 80% Republican. Not a lot of diversity in terms of ideas, race, or even age.