Historical perspective on productivity and employee motivation

Historical perspective on productivity improvement

It can be deducted, that from earliest recorded times groups of people have been organized to work together towards planned goals. Their efforts coordinated and controlled to achieve such outcomes. Though the term scientific management did not come into being well into the Industrial Revolution (the latter half of the 19th century,) its history is, on reflection, much longer than the term itself.

Consider the management skills required, by the ancient Egyptians to build their pyramids, by the ancient Chinese to build the Great Wall of China, the management skills of the Mesopotamians to irrigate their land and wall their cities, of the Romans when building their roads, aqueducts and Hadrian's Wall.

All these man-made constructions required large amounts of human effort and therefore organization i.e. planning, control and coordination.

The Great Pyramid for example is 75600 square feet at its base, 480 feet high, and contains over 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing 2.5 tons. The base of the structure is only 7 inches from being a perfect square. This was achieved with no computer, electronic calculator, modern materials handling equipment or advanced mathematical techniques/ models.

Scientific Management - some earlier contributors?

The Chinese philosopher Mencius (372-289BC) dealt with conceptual models and systems familiar now under the term of production management techniques. He indicated the advantages of the division of labor.

Records indicate that the ancient Greeks understood the advantages of, and practiced, uniform work methods. Their soldiers were instructed as to how their weapons and equipment should be laid out in case of a surprise attack. They also employed work songs to develop a rhythm, in order to achieve a smooth less fatiguing tempo, to improve productivity.

The division of labor was recognized by Plato (427-347BC). He wrote in The Republic, 'A man whose work is confined to such limited task must necessarily excel at it'

Ancient attitude to work

However, work itself was viewed by certainly the ancient Greeks and the Romans, as demeaning.

Work was something to be avoided as it got in the way of more ideal pursuits, such as the arts, philosophy and military adventure. Therefore, those who could afford to do so employed slaves.

After the fall of the Roman Empire

With the fall of the Roman Empire, development was curtailed; slavery being replaced by feudalism. In pre-Reformation Christian Europe, work was also seen as a burden, a punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve, for which reward would be found in the hereafter. In this period, the mechanical clock, invented by Heinrich von Wych in Paris in 1370, and Guttenberg's printing press were key to all future developments in scientific management.

The former permitted accurate work measurement the latter the ability to communicate by the printed word. Indeed Guttenberg's inspired creative thinking can be viewed as an early example of method study. The story goes that Guttenberg, whilst at a wine festival, realized he could apply the technique of using dies for coin-punching with the mechanics of a wine press, to produce a printed page, made up of individual letters instead of from a single engraved block.

The First Production Line?

In 1436 a Spanish visitor to the Arsenal of Venice reported:

"And as one enters the gate there is a great street on either hand with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the house of the arsenal, and the same on the other side, and out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they handed out to them, from one the cardage, from another the ballistics and mortars, and so from all sides everything which was required, and when the galley had reached the end of the street all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was equipped from end to end. In this manner there came out ten galleys, fully armed, between the hours of three and nine."

The Spanish visitor had witnessed a production line, around 500 years before Henry Ford. The Arsenal of Venice also used standardized parts. The bows of the warships had to accommodate all types of arrows, stern parts to accommodate all types of rudders and rigging. The deck parts had to be interchangeable. This was also an earlier form of waste control. Wrecked vessels could be cannibalized.

This productivity improving method of manufacturing of galleys presupposes some sort of work measurement and method study prior to the establishment of the facility. Plus, the desire to improve productivity in line with a real need to do so i.e. reduce costs, competition, protect, maintain or improve competitiveness etc.

Fifteenth century monks recorded the overall times for the construction of monastery stonework. Such records suggest an attempt, even in those early times, to establish standards of quality, time and output.

Work attitude

With the Reformation, the Protestant 'work ethic' emerged based on Luther's glorification of work theory. Calvinism brought further consolidation to this principle and with it the virtues of thrift, frugality and the honorable acquisition of wealth.

Work was viewed in society as respectable and idleness as deplorable.

From the forgoing, it can be deduced that though the term scientific management has been coined fairly recently, the application of scientific management principles has been around a lot longer.

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