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Taylorism here, there and everywhere: the systematisation of our lives

Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management theory emphasises efficiency but does that efficiency come at the expense of customer satisfaction? 

Inside an airplane

I have been reflecting on how Frederick Winslow Taylor has impacted on the world. Outside of certain professions, most are oblivious to the system as they live their lives, being part of many overlapping and interconnected systems, on a virtual conveyor belt from cradle to grave.

From the issuing of the birth certificate to the death certificate and at every stage in between from infancy, education, work, marriage to retirement there are multiple systems at play. This systematisation of every aspect of life particularly hit me on a return flight from Egypt to the UK.

Since the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft I have become more apprehensive,  especially on long distance flights. As usual every flight begins with an in-flight safety announcement. This was being given using a recording on the screen once in English, once in Arabic with an inset screen for sign language. The efficiency is undeniable,  however it is based on two key assumptions; that everyone speaks either English, Arabic or sign language; that everyone has understood and has no questions each time and every time. Looking around it was evident that not everyone was listening – some passengers were talking, while others were adjusting their seatbelts,  and for some the safety announcement was just background noise.

The signs of the systemised checklist approach to our flight were evident throughout, illustrated I feel best by the cold coffee

Newspapers were distributed to the passengers who were in the main from an Arab background. Being an English speaker I was given the option of an English paper, the Egyptian Gazette. This was an Egyptian political paper of no real interest to me, especially given I was returning to the UK and what I actually would have wanted was the news in the UK so I could catch up.

The plane was fairly dated, having screens interspaced throughout the cabin meaning no choice was offered to passengers on which film was being played. Again there were a number of assumptions such as everyone wanted to watch a film; that the particular genre would suit all tastes; no one had seen it before or having seen it would want to see it again. Headphones were distributed and 10 minutes into the film (thankfully) the screens stopped working.

The signs of the systemised checklist approach to our flight were evident throughout, illustrated I feel best by the cold coffee. Food was served swiftly followed efficiently by a ‘hot’ beverage; however the beverage was anything but hot.

At one point the plane hit turbulence,  so the seat belt sign came on and so everyone strapped in, but was it really akin to being in a car or was it just to create the perception of safety? I had to ponder whether the airline had actually made us all safer or had it simply discharged its duty of care in the most efficient manner? Were the safety announcements, the newspapers, the film, the meal and the cold coffee all part of a systematic distraction from what was actually happening to reassure passengers? The stark reality was that the plane weighs 242 tons, travelling at speeds of over 470 knots with an altitude up to 39,370 feet over land and sea.

I recalled the matrix reference – red pill or blue pill? Was the ugly truth preferable or the beautiful lie? The system had failed in many ways in the pursuit of efficiency rather than effectiveness and customer satisfaction. However,  despite these shortcomings I was still grateful that the pilot was not relying on human judgement alone but was supported by a complicated larger system that in truth owes its origins to Taylor, with the system of distraction being only a small part of a much greater system to keep us airborne.

Published 1 May 2019

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