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Job Design and Scientific Management

Scientific management was the genesis of job design. Specialization has its origins in Taylor’s scientific management philosophy. Taylor broke the assembly line up into a series of specialist tasks and treated each component separately in his analysis of how performance could be boosted.

The driver for specialization was waste minimization and efficiency enhancement. By identifying the best way of performing a task, wastage in time, resources, and effort is abated. Taylor studied each job in the factory to determine the least amount of time and effort required to complete it. So standardized methods of performing a job was central to Taylorism. Each job on the assembly line would be meticulously planned in advance, and employees were paid to perform particular tasks in the way specified by management.

So the present-day people management practice of job specification originated from Taylor’s job specialization. A job specification entails breaking down a job into its simplest component parts and assigning them to a job-holder to perform the tasks in a consistent and efficient manner. There are several obvious advantages to designing work around a job specification. Breaking tasks into small elements, with clearly defined repetitious processes, lessens the skill requirement of the job itself. It also decreases discretionary effort in the execution of the tasks and therefore reduces costs. Training timeframes are short and standardized, recurring tasks are broken into simple parts, and the success of the learning experience is likely to be high. But job specification, as I’ve alluded to, has drawbacks.

From a motivational perspective, breaking a job into small, repetitive, and simple component parts can make the work dull and repetitive. Boredom can lead to negative consequences such as higher than normal levels of absenteeism. A job specialization can be ineffectual in environments that are dynamic and unpredictable. In these volatile work- settings, the workforce needs to adjust its approach in response to the demands of the situation. Selling products or services in cross-cultural environments, for example, requires extensive agility that can’t necessarily be documented as a generic process in a job specification. Despite these shortcomings, specialization puts the onus on the manager to be accountable and the job-holder for achieving outcomes.

Taylor’s philosophy of scientific management paved the way for automating and standardizing work, virtually universal in today’s workplace. The concept of the assembly line—where each worker performs simple tasks in a recurring fashion is Taylorism in action. Job specialization eventually found its way into service industries too. One of the biggest success stories of the application of scientific management principles, as I mentioned in Chap. 3, is the McDonald’s franchise operation. McDonalds were the first fast-food restaurant to incorporate the divisions of specialization; one person takes the orders while someone else makes the burgers, another person applies the condiments, and yet another wraps them. With this level of efficiency, the customer generally receive a product or service with reliable quality.

So if specialization can be applied successfully in McDonald’s restaurants, and is now a feature of many fast-food franchise systems, how is it problematic from a performance standpoint? Specialization, as I’ve described it, encumbers adaptive behavior. Job specification hampers several dimensions of agility. More specifically, specialization adversely affects the dimensions of innovation, recovery, continuous improvement, customer responsiveness, and changing direction. Apart from being repetitive and dull—and the impact that has on motivation levels—fully engaging people in this type of work can be hard. I consider this more fully later in Chap. 8. But for now, let’s concentrate on the main performance problem of specialization: it stifles agility.

An employee having the innovation mindset I spoke about in Chap. 2 is going to be frustrated if confronted with an endless procession of standardized processes and procedures to follow, for instance. In a segmented and process-driven workplace, questioning the status quo isn’t valued to the same extent as following the status quo. What’s more, the concept of specialization implies the specialist “knows best.” Specialists are inclined to obediently follow established practices. If a completely new method is advanced in a procedure-driven environment, it infers the “old” system is somehow inferior or substandard. This idea isn’t always easy to accept; the current situation in most cases is defended vigorously and the proposed method rejected.

The speed of recovery from a mistake—such as overcharging a customer—usually requires a flexible response from someone in the offending company. But a strict, process-driven workplace can inhibit unorthodox replies to an error, no matter how sensible it may appear. Employees—when mistakes are made—understandably default to the apparent safety of following stock-standard approaches, as we discussed in the last chapter. The dimension of continuous improvement is less of a problem, however. Innovation though, is challenging in a workplace segmented into specialists. Nevertheless, implying a need for improvement suggests the established system is broken in some way and that—as I say—is difficult to accept.

Being truly responsive to a customer’s need requires agility, as we’ve discussed; and being agile is essentially about trying new approaches when a situation warrants it. Specialization breeds a “paint by numbers” mentality: This is how we do things. We’ve always done things this way. If we folOw the system we’ll be successful. These statements portray the prevailing assumptions of specialization. For example, McDonalds took a long time—many would say, too long—to change direction and introduce “healthy” food options onto its menu. Changing direction is harder when a business is made up of a series of specialized methods and processes to produce its goods and services.

Although a job specification is an effective way of holding a jobholder accountable for the work they’re supposed to do, it is ineffec?tive at promoting agile behavior. Specialization breeds “tunnel vision;” the employee cannot—and doesn’t necessarily want to—understand or appreciate the way the rest of the organization operates. This blinkered thinking is designed to get the employee to focus all their energies on a few, manageable work tasks to a required standard.

So, let’s return to flexible deployment as an alternative to specialization. Can it work in tandem with specialization?

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