Employees Goofing Off

One of the criticisms that many people have of Frederick Winslow Taylor is his sometimes negative view of laborers. Often ignored, of course, is his positive view of laborers and their potential to perform at higher levels. Critics also ignore that Taylor was a laborer, supervisor, and manager of laborers, and so he knew what he was talking about, whether it was favorable or unfavorable about laborers.

Taylor wanted to create a new system of management that, if understood and applied correctly by managers, would result in mutual gains for both employee and employer, and he thought that wages were the key incentive. In his paper “Shop Management” (1903), Taylor described his method for creating a “first-class man.” He said (pp. 28-29):

“To summarize, then, what the aim in each establishment should be:
(a) That each workman should be given as far as possible the highest grade of work for which his ability and physique fit him.
(b) That each workman should be called upon to turn out the maximum amount of work which a first-rate man of his class can do and thrive.
(c) That each workman, when he works at the best pace of a first-class man, should be paid from 30 per cent. to 100 per cent. according to the nature of the work which he does, beyond the average of his class.”

This resulted in a mutual benefit for both the employee, high wages, and the employer, low costs. This was Taylor’s standard for laborers.

One of the things that both Taylor and business owners disliked was the tendency of laborers to “soldier.” By that, Taylor meant (p. 30):

“On the part of the men the greatest obstacle to the attainment of this standard [first-class man] is the slow pace which they adopt, or the loafing or ‘soldiering,’ marking time, as it is called.”

He described two types of soldiering (p. 30):

“This loafing or soldiering proceeds from two causes. First, from the natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy, which may be called natural soldiering. Second, from more intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men, which may be called systematic soldiering.

There is no question that the tendency of the average man (in all walks of life) is toward working at a slow, easy gait, and that it is only after a good deal of thought and observation on his part or as a result of example, conscience, or external pressure that he takes a more rapid pace.”

Almost any spouse will tell you that Taylor’s reasoning is sound, and likely understated as well. All of us, if we are honest, soldier at work, whether we work on the shop floor or in the office, hourly or salary. Men, especially, take long breaks, we slow down our work, we meet up with people to talk “business” (meaning, sports), and so on. So, people’s criticism of Taylor on this point is pure bullshit.

You should also recognize that Taiichi Ohno had similar objectives as Taylor’s, though his approach was quite different, far more elaborate, highly integrated, and even clever. Different methods have been used by managers in different times to get laborers to do actual work for as much of an 8-hour day as is possible; the duration of time which workers get paid. If you owned the business, you would want the same.

Yet, people dislike Taylor for saying workers can be lazy – as if he is disrespecting workers. Hardly; he is acknowledging a fundamental aspect of the human condition. But the reality is that people are people, no matter what the job is, and so they will soldier to greater or lesser extents, partly out of self-interest. It was true before 1903 and will be true long after 2016.

Goofing Off

In truth, the thing that Taylor can be criticized for is not saying that managers, including top leaders, also can be lazy. They too engage in both natural and systematic soldiering. Their slack time is hidden by the appearance of working, and also by working ahead. Talking, for example, is not necessarily working. Here are a few examples of soldering by mid- and senior-level managers:

  • Half- or all-day meetings where nothing is accomplished
  • Sitting in office all day reading e-mails or talking on the phone
  • Talking at length, while communicating nothing
  • Micromanaging employees
  • Taking days to do a task that can be completed in 5 minutes
  • Office politicking; brown-nosing the boss, backstabbing rivals
  • Delaying decision-making
  • Business travel, often unnecessary (though subordinates are happy to have boss out of the office)
  • Executive offsite meetings (at least 75% soldiering)

Can you think of other examples of managers’ slow pace, loafing, or marking time?

In a job that adds no value to products or services, managers are far more likely, and, to a greater extent, engage in soldiering than laborers on the shop or office floor — even more so in hierarchies, where people at the top have little of substance to do between directives given to subordinates. Therefore, soldiering by managers is a problem that we should recognize and correct with as much kindhearted focus and vigor as as soldiering by workers.

For more than 100 years, managers have had it easy, not because there is no standard, but because the standard is wrong. Think, what is the standard for managers, especially top leaders? The standard has been the average manager. It is one who:

  • Follows the herd in both mindset and methods
  • When trouble arises, the first reaction is to lay people off, close facilities, and squeeze suppliers
  • Receives the highest pay for minimum work done poorly

The standard, of course, should be the best leader — in exactly the same way that Taiichi Ohno said: “Take the shortest [best] time as the standard” (Workplace Management, Chapter 36, pp. 151-153). The best leaders are those who think, improve or replace existing methods, and who, when trouble arises, does everything possible to avoid taking horrible actions that harm employees and other stakeholders. That is my standard for business leaders, and it should be yours as well.

So how does one correct management soldiering and create first-class leaders?

The aim of the establishment should be:
(a) Each manager should be given as far as possible the highest grade of work for which their ability and intellect fit.
(b) Each manager should be called upon to turn out the maximum amount of work which a first-rate manager of his class can do and thrive.
(c) Each manager, when they work at the best pace of a first-class manager, should be paid from 30 per cent. to 100 per cent. according to the nature of the work which they do, beyond the average of their class.

And, there needs to be a practical method for achieving this. That is the subject of the next blog post. Here are a few hints:

  • Ohno connected the worker to the customer. I will connect the leader to the worker.
  • I will show how to create first-class leaders using three rules: 1) Simplify, 2) Standardize, and 3) Specialize.

The standard must no longer be the average manager.

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