Is the 4 day week the logical extension of Taylorism?

Image: Abandoned mine spoil tips Plynlimon Lead Mine, Wales

The answer is YES, and Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915) would have approved. Even if it’s taken over 100 years to start seriously talking about it.

If you’re happy with my assurances, please feel free scroll down to my ramblings about Plynlimon Lead Mine (pictured). If you’d rather find out why I’m making a bold claim about Taylorism, and the 4 day week, please let me explain.

What is Taylorism? If you’ve done work, training or reading around the subjects of business improvement, performance management or indeed management/leadership development you’ve probably heard Taylorism mentioned.

Taylorism and ‘scientific management’ in my experience are often described as an approach that:

  • ‘scientifically’ examines a work activity,
  • breaks activity down into specific ‘tasks’,
  • standardises the ‘best’ way of performing each task,
  • creates measures to manage the performance for workers,
  • uses bosses to organise / ‘manage’ the workers, and
  • maximises the productivity (efficiency) of the workers.

Within this context, workers are seen as ‘units of production’. Little more that ‘machines’ if you’ve got a particular view of Taylorism. BUT THIS ISN’T EXACTLY TRUE.

First Rate Workers. Thank you to Dave Snowden who recently described what Taylorism was originally about, and how Peter Drucker ‘helped’ him with his understanding.

This 1976 paper by Peter Drucker; ‘The coming rediscovery of scientific management: Frederick Winslow Taylor may prove a more useful prophet to our times than we yet recognise’ explains the original principles of Taylorism. Here is my take on the key points.

  1. High wages for workers. Taylor was an advocate for high wages. This was linked to the idea of money as a motivator, but also recognised that there was more to productivity than money. Also, it wasn’t about maximising profits at the expense of workers.
  2. Decent working conditions. In the 1800’s many jobs were physically destructive to the human body. Taylor was in favour of rest periods to allow people to recover, which reduced the ‘destruction’ and helped productivity. Nowadays, where the physical nature of jobs has changed we might focus on wellbeing and mental health.
  3. Harmonious industrial relations. This is where the ‘first rate workers’ idea fits. Taylor believed that each person has the capacity to be a ‘first rate worker’, doing their best and being rewarded for it. The job of managers is to help people find the jobs where they can be ‘first rate’. That feels ‘achingly modern’ and has many parallels with things like ‘strengths based recruitment’. There is a lot in common with what I saw at GUREAK in the Basque Country; jobs designed so that people can be their very best. Explained here, GUREAK, A Basque social labour inclusion flagship (warning, I love GUREAK).
  4. Good Mangers. Taylor pushed the principle that bosses have a duty to support workers and ‘help them in all kinds of ways’. It’s less about ‘telling’ and ‘carrot and stick’ and bit more about what you might experience in a 21st century ‘how to be a modern leader’ workshop.

So, that was Taylorism at the Midvale Steel Company, Pennsylvania in 1882, explained by Peter Drucker in 1976. I think it’s disappointing how far from the ‘path’ we’ve deviated and how mis-represented or ignored some of Taylor’s principles have become. The ‘future’ was already with us in 1882. If you want to know more, this British Library article, ‘Frederick Taylor, Father of Scientific Management’ is a good summary, with useful links to further reading.

The 4 Day Working Week; another ‘achingly modern’ concept, or maybe not. One of the things I’ve taken from reading about Taylor was his commitment to workers receiving the benefits of their increased productivity. It wasn’t all about keeping the wages low and maximising the profits for the owners.

The Drucker article specifically says; ‘the workers should receive the full benefit of higher productivity obtained through “scientific management”, whether in the form of higher wages or of shorter hours’.

I think I’ll stop at this point. In my view, Taylor would have approved of the 4 day working week (providing productivity is maintained). Happy to discuss this.

Image: Plynlimon Lead Mines Co Measuring Book

Plynlimon Lead Mines Company. Last weekend I went on a bit of a pilgrimage to Pumlumon Fawr and Plynlimon Lead Mine in the Cambrian Mountains, near Aberystwyth (operational 1865 – 1892). It’s a difficult place to get to, let alone mine and process lead ore. Described on the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales Coflein website as ‘1800 ft above sea level is bleak in the extreme, with shocking weather for much of the year’.

My interest revolved around the Plynlimon Lead Mines Co Measuring Book I’ve acquired. It was amongst my wife’s Grandparents things, and is somehow linked to relatives that worked in the lead mines. Deep down I was hoping for some examples of scientific management being recorded in the Measuring Book.

You know the sort of stuff, the most productive ways of extracting lead ore and then processing it. Along with detailed accounts of the fair wages paid to my wife’s ancestors, recorded in lovely Cardiganshire Copperplate handwriting. Unfortunately there’s none of that, just a ‘bill of works’ for some work on her grandparents house and shopping list.

I do however recommend Plynlimon Lead Mine as a visit, it’s a beautiful, bleak and inspiring place.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Taylorism has it’s roots in fair work where people can be ‘first rate workers’. Yes it’s about increased productivity, but not at the cost of ‘destroying’ the worker.
  2. The role of managers and bosses is to help people become that ‘first rate worker’.
  3. Workers should receive the full benefit of higher productivity… whether in the form of higher wages or of shorter hours. An idea very in tune with the 4 day week.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s