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Taylorism, Fordism, Toyotism

When the factory system came into existence in the 19th century, ushering in centralised control of production operations, the capitalist employers were confronted with three problems: lack of work-flow coordination, rudimentary cost controls, and the ‘labour problem’ (i.e. the problem of getting worker commitment and involvement). They had to evolve techniques of overcoming these problems under the influence of the “systematic management movement” or Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management”, and developments in cost accounting in their pure or modified form and content. Taylorism meant three things: first, a meticulous analysis of complicated jobs of the production process, its division and subdivision into simpler jobs and then establishing standardized labour norms for each so as to maximise results vis-à-vis effort; secondly, a discovery of the labour cost of each divided and subdivided job which was then constantly scrutinized; and thirdly, an incentive system or a system of ‘hard-driving’ that could squeeze maximum intensity out of workers—the so-called system of payment by results or piece rate system. There were incredible gains in labour productivity and savings in unit labour cost due to deskilling of work and particular specialism of workers.

Employers were thrilled that workers with relatively little skill and even untested work habits could be fitted into production without lowering productivity. This ‘innovation’ was refined over time by time and motion studies and eventually superseded by Fordism in the 1920s. Fordism meant assembly-line production. The product was divided into a number of parts produced by different workers with such accuracy as to be interchangeable. These parts were then assembled. All production flowed continuously from one stage to the next. The semi-automatic assembly line production of mass consumer goods produced in long runs as also of the standardised intermediate parts and components for the final assembly of consumer goods came to be known as Fordism. Like Taylorism, Fordism smashed the job autonomy of workers.

The one best way of doing every job would henceforth be determined by the science of outside experts, the pace of work being governed by the machine used, and the speed of the assembly line. The marriage between Taylorism and Fordism brought into existence Toyotism aka super-Taylorism. While Taylorism decomposed tasks and assigned those tasks to individual workers, Fordism recomposed the tasks by welding the individual labours into a speedy human machine. Added to this was something super-rational--the rationality of work organisation in terms of Taylorism was fully stretched. Which is to say that the employers and/or managers started working on the Taylor’s fundamental insight that the workers’ knowledge was the place to begin any production reform for enhanced productivity and quality. Toyotism in Japan, thus, amounted to super-Taylorism as it used this insight of Taylor which was forgotten in the Western context wherein only those aspects of the Taylor system that stressed tight managerial control on the shopfloor were accepted. The superiority of the Toyota production system or Toyotism can be interpreted further as follows. It has a more rational character with regard to the role of human labour in the workplace, particularly that of ‘collective workers’, as compared to the Ford system. The central point is that improvement in manufacturing methods or product quality depends on collective workers’ concern or desire to achieve it in the workplace. In the words of Marx, “It is only the experience of the combined labourer which discovers and reveals the where and how of saving, the simplest methods of applying the discoveries, and the ways to overcome the practical frictions arising from carrying out the theory—in its application to the production process.” Fordism, based on Taylorism, which aimed to exploit workers through job fragmentation and the separation of conception from execution, has further promoted the separation between intellectual and manual labour through the mechanisation of production.

The skills of workers on the line are narrowed and equalized in order to adapt them to fragmented jobs and specialised machine operations; in this way, management emphasized the interchangeability of the workforce. The result, however, was the diffusion of alienation among productive workers; low productivity, decline of workers’ commitment to the job due to monotonous and boring and even dangerous work, strikes, absenteeism and instrumental attitudes to work. Since the 1970s, there has been a big wave of job redesign ideas, such as job enrichment, job enlargement and job rotation. Underlying this trend is a concern to render work both more productive and more humane by restructuring work and work organisation. Fundamental to this is a belief that improvements in productivity and quality depend on the positive experience and creativity of the collective worker. The Toyota work organisation needs to be seen as a logical culmination of work organisation innovation on these lines in high volume, diversified production. In the Toyota workplace, teams were formed from multifunctional workers.

Teamwork in Japan meant not only cooperation between workers but also the full use of the potential capacity of each worker. Whereas Taylorism and Fordism lost sight of the benefits to be generated by cooperation between workers, that is, of the importance of the collective productive capacity of combined workers, Toyotism on the contrary had developed a combination of job design securing the benefits of cooperation and technological design of the production process maximising the benefits of the division of labour, thereby achieving improvement in individual as also collective productive capacity by making each worker multifunctional. In light of this, we can appreciate why Japanese capitalism was once hailed as a superior capitalism in terms of ‘collective capitalism’ that taps the gold in the head of the collective worker vis-à-vis the individualistic North American capitalism. So be it.

Toyotism atrophied in Japan itself from the 1980s and 1990s and its emulation elsewhere in the world was without worker participation and empowerment. There is evidence to the effect of managerial failure to respond to what it is hearing from the workers. This discourages the workers from providing new information, even as lack of more equitable financial sharing arrangements does not reinforce non-financial participation in terms of suggestion schemes or problem solving groups or quality circles by convincing the employees that all benefits will flow only to the employers. Unless the employers encourage organisational solidarity through job security and narrow pay differentials, worker participation does not take off. Moreover, that participation leads to commitment which in turn results in higher productivity and improved quality of product sounds very nice only in theory. This may not work in practice as workers fear that greater productivity will mean the loss of their jobs. Unless job security is guaranteed, worker participation will not be sustained. All these issues seem to explain much of the observed reality of the absence of original Toyotism in all parts of the world. There is homogenisation in terms of the presence of New Fordism. Which means there is Toyotism without proactive worker involvement all around the world. Some large firms have tried to elicit employee involvement and commitment through financial participation in terms of employee stock ownership plans or profit sharing. But such plans have not necessarily entailed employee participation in decision making. The reason is that intrinsic to these plans is the so-called 1/N problem. If N is the number of participating employees, and if N is large, the reward an individual worker will obtain from added effort is small. To conclude, all over the world there is factory life without industrial democracy. Workers work faster, harder and longer without compensating incentives. Managerial prerogatives govern the microcosm of factories, like the despotic power elites, including the so-called democratically elected ones, rule the macrocosm--the society outside of factories.

Annavajhula J.C. Bose,
PhD Department of Economics, SRCC


Annavajhula J.C. Bose. 2018. Exploring Real World Industrial Organisation. Educreation Publishing.

2. Annavajhula J.C. Bose. 2018. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Contemporary Labour Relations. Blue Rose Publishers.

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