America saved by boffins

Manufacturing Rationality
March 24, 2000

Five hundred revolvers, 64 rifles, 245 shotguns, 143 gas guns, more than 4,000 gas projectiles and more than 2,700 gas grenades: not, as you might suppose, the arsenal of the Chechen rebels, but the armoury of Republic Steel, an American corporation, around the beginning of the 20th century. And the enemy? Organised labour.

Industrial disputes in the United States at that time were characterised by a level of violence with no ready parallel in Europe. What to do about it? One answer, claimed the enthusiastic exponents of "managerial rationality", was to introduce management systems in the workplace: for example, a differential piece-rate system to give workers a fairer share of profits.

The extent to which such techniques helped quell industrial unrest is hard to judge, since strikes fell off as labour-law reform and the Depression took effect. Nevertheless, any possible solution was worth trying in a context where, for example, 74 were killed by federal troops in the Ludlow Massacre, in 1914, when a miners' tent colony in Colorado was attacked.

The new breed of managers appears to have been, in the main, mechanical engineers. This has enabled Yehouda Shenhav to produce a history of the development of management science by scrutinising two journals, American Machinist and Engineering Magazine , from the 1870s until the 1920s. He traces the shift towards standardisation in engineering components in the late 19th century, so that nuts and bolts and much else could be used interchangeably throughout the industrialised world. The consequences of non-standard equipment were graphically demonstrated by the 1904 Baltimore fire that annihilated the business district, notwithstanding ample water supplies, because the screw threads on the fire hydrants did not fit couplings on the hoses of fire engines from other towns.

Although American engineers came to find the logic of standardisation unanswerable, Europe was less easily persuaded. One famous German mechanical engineer, Hermann Gruson, was known as an excellent designer for whom cost was irrelevant. He tried to redesign from scratch every new locomotive ordered, even casting aside tried and trusted designs.

Then came the bigger challenge of "systematisation", as engineers sought to manage by treating manufacturing units like machines. "Efficiency" was the watchword, with time-and-motion studies, planning and measurement introduced into every aspect of the production process. There was strong resistance, from both owners and operatives. As one foreman complained:

"They had every man in the place running around with a pencil over his ear, and we didn't get the work done." Eventually everyone agreed it was a good thing, and American management methods were exported worldwide, particularly after the second world war. Even British reservations were swept away in the end. Of course, fashions have moved on, and now the faithful make their pilgrimage to Japan for the latest thinking.

There are some nuggets in this work, but it does not wear its learning lightly. The first chapter, in particular, seems aimed at establishing scholarly credibility above all else, leading to an impenetrable thicket of jargon, such as: "The ideology of rationality authorises a scientific scheme which legitimises pure instrumentalism and replicates teleological assumptions." Consequently, this is not a volume for the manager's bookshelf. Readership will be confined to serious scholars of management history, which is a pity.

Robert Gaitskell is a practising Queen's Counsel and a vice-president, Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution

Author - Yehouda Shenhav
ISBN - 0 19 829630 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 247

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