Ages of Taylorism: an Analysis of Workplaces Regimes from Ford to Tesla

Type de publication:

Conference Paper

Source:

Gerpisa colloquium, Bordeaux (2024)

Résumé:

The Emergence of Taylorism

Throughout the XIX century, several sectors of the American economy went through a new industrial phase characterized by the affirmation of giant corporations, making great use of scientific discoveries and engineering expertise inside all production processes. As reported by Noble (1977), since from the beginning the century, capitalists concentrated their effort at introducing labor-saving machines, but the massive investments and the increasing competitive pressures required a rethinking of internal economy of the factory which constituted the real productivity constraint.

Taylorism emerged as the implementation of a composite set of principles engineered to minimize workers’ opportunism and to establish full control over the production process [Taylor (1911)]. The object of contention of the Taylorist paradigm is in the first place the time of production, which can be restrained only by control over knowledge of the production process. But more than a study of production operations at the micro-level, in terms of duration and mode of execution, we argue that Taylorism should be conceived as a techno-economic paradigm. In other words, it can not be reduced only to an optimal codification and implementation of production processes, but rather, including systematic instruments aimed at a contextual coercion of the workers’ behavior, Taylorist paradigm influence how the workforce was managed within workplaces and the overall manufacturing mode of production.

The Restructuring of US Automotive Sector

Since from the early Twentieth Century, the automotive manufacturing industry soon emerged as one of the sectors of the U.S. economy characterized by the existence of large corporations adopting Taylorist organizational routines. From the establishment of Ford mass production, passing through the multidivisional organization of General Motors up to the emergence of Tesla, Taylorism has always conditioned the organizational and technological paradigm within the sector.

Nevertheless, for a long time, the automotive industry has been treated as a consolidated sector that has been living in a maturity phase characterized by few shakes in terms of leading actors and technological challenges [Abernathy and K. B. Clark (1985)]. Not only because of the entry of international competitors, but the crisis of 2008 offered the opportunity for a major transformation of the sectors, in particular towards the challenges of the future. Firstly, the challenge of sustainability posed by the climate change required a radical rethinking of power sources inside the transportation technological paradigm, as has not been seen since the birth of the sector. Secondly, and complementary, more and more companies are forming unprecedented alliances with several technology companies to secure their position in the future of the market [D. J. Teece (2018)]. The entry of Tesla, a new competitor without expertise in the automotive or related technological fields, has raised questions about whether the historically high barriers to entry have fallen [Malerba and Orsenigo (1997)]. In accordance with Mazzei, Rughi and Virgillito (2023), nowadays the competition for the development of low-emission vehicles takes place between two different types of actors. On the one hand, traditional automakers have been trying to green up their vehicles while still preserving their historical design. On the other hand, a more radical path is being taken by another group of automakers designing alternative powertrains, such as hybrid and electric vehicles.

However, as far as workplace management is concerned, the new rhetoric of worker participation and involvement masks a subtle and insidious management control strategy, and however much this transformation may have improved the factory environment, it has not changed the power relations at play [Milkman (2023)]. This paper successfully provides evidence on the evolution of Taylorist organizational routines in the U.S. automotive sector. Coherently insisting on capitalism "natural" trajectory, Taylorism mutated over time but its inherent principles are preserved still today [Nelson and Winter (1982)].

Research Question

The use of Scientific Management principles to organize production has been widespread, particularly in the manufacturing industry. This work provides evidences of its application within the automotive sector, where the Taylorist principles were firstly implemented. The aim of this contribution is to trace the most important steps in the evolution of scientific organization of work since the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. The analysis considers the firms, and their respective pivotal workplaces, that have succeeded each other in the leadership of the sector. From Ford to Tesla, this paper discusses why and how Taylorism has been able to respond evolutionary to the cyclical crisis and alternative paradigms in the sector, and what are the internal consequences from the organizational and technological perspectives and on the workforce composition and management.

Methodology

Throughout the twentieth century, the automotive industry has evolved from a fledgling sector with a multitude of players using traditional manufacturing skills, to a key sector for the U.S. economy, populated by giant companies adopting complex organizational structures and the most advanced technologies. This paper selects the companies and their respective central workplaces on the basis of the role they played in shaping the technological and organizational development of the industry. All of them are analyzed in four levels:

 

1. Products and Underlying Technological Regime

This work attempts to reconstruct on the one hand the technological challenges of the automotive sector and on the other hand how the choice of products reflects on the underlying technological regime of a company. Through direct reference to the technological artifacts and the segment targeted by each firm, it is derived the underlying technological regime and the organization of work at the firm level.

2. Organizational Structure and Industrial Relations

This second dimension examines the organizational structure of each company or workplace analyzed, with particular attention to its sites of power and knowledge [Coriat and Dosi (1995); Dosi, Marengo and Virgillito (2021)].

3. Technological Trajectory and Automation

As organizations and technology evolve together, the technological trajectory of firms is traced in parallel with the previous dimension. Following the definition provided by Braverman (1974), is Taylorism a coherent trajectory of capitalism mode of production?

4. Redistributive policies and Incentives

In combination with mechanisms for enforcing workers’ productivity, Taylorism also includes incentive instruments to increase effort. We tested their presence and whether they manifested as additional control devices.

 

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