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OM in the News: Looking Back–and Forward–on Productivity

September 29, 2014

productivityFrederick Taylor revolutionized manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century with a simple insight. Most manufacturing work was a sequence of physical motions. You would load coal onto a shovel, carry it to a furnace, throw it into the furnace, walk back to the coal pile and repeat. In a time and motion study, he quantified each step and how long it took. Then he analyzed how to improve the whole process. He noted, for example, that a typical worker could lift 21 pounds for maximum efficiency. Workers varied in size and strength, but on average this weight balanced the number of shovel lifts per minute against the volume per lift. In those early days, workers used the same shovel for all materials, regardless of the density of the stuff being lifted, so less weight was being lifted for the less dense materials. Taylor’s elegant and simple solution — bigger scoops for shovels used to haul the less dense materials — illustrates how careful analysis of a specific work process can increase productivity.

Today, his time and motion studies seem antiquated. Phone calls and memos have replaced shovels and picks for many workers. “Yet despite its association with early factories, a modern version of the spirit of Taylorism is sorely needed,” writes Harvard’s Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan in the New York Times (Sept. 28, 2014). “It’s time to identify and optimize the specific psychologies that constitute the mental alchemy of productivity,” he says.

In one Stanford experiment, some workers were randomly assigned to work at home, others worked in group call centers. The work habits of both groups were carefully monitored electronically, and the workers knew it. Those working at home were 13% more productive than those in call centers. With modern technology, we now have so many ways to quantify, track and motivate productivity, and are just beginning to scratch the surface of doing so.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is productivity such an important issue in OM?

2. Describe how time and motion studies are conducted (see Chapter 10).

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