Maximizing efficiency, minimizing employee dignity

February 6, 2015

On Nov. 21, 1910, Louis Brandeis popularized a revolutionary economic theory called scientific management. This theory argued for businesses to focus on raising their efficiency to lower their production costs and in turn increase their total revenue. Scientific management has been hallowed by many economists and business leaders and has been applied to almost every industry since its formation. Unfortunately, as I endeavored to place an order at Brandeis University’s own Louis’ Deli, I saw how this innovative economic theory had been horribly corrupted.

After reading Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “Shop Management” Brandeis suggested “improving business methods” in a way that lowered management costs and raised wages. As explained in Oscar Kraines book, “Brandeis’ Philosophy of Scientific Management,” Brandeis believed better business methods meant improving the firms “themselves” by limiting “reckless expansion,” which would “narrow down the margin of economic safety.” By increasing their efficiency, most companies could lower their costs of production, charge the same prices and still gain more revenue. Through his research, Brandeis promoted the idea that revenue gains can be best achieved through maximizing economic efficiency.

However, the idea of managing economic efficiency has become more owner-oriented since Brandeis’ promotion of scientific management. It has transformed into automation of tasks through technology and deskilling of labor among the lowest paid employees in any given industry. Both of these practices allow business owners to reap the economic benefits of the modified management system and have been applied to the retail, public service and even food industries.

The adulteration of scientific management was the source of my discomfort as I entered Louis’ Deli and attempted to order food. As a first-year student, I was initially excited about all of the food choices offered at the deli. I also thought that the touch-screen devices in Upper Usdan were signs of Brandeis University’s modernity. However, this excitement quickly diminished after I asked an employee, “What’s your most popular item?”

Unfortunately, when I asked the deli employee this question, along with other inquiries like, “What toppings go well with a brisket sandwich?” and “Should I get this sandwich pressed?” I was repeatedly left with a confused stare and no direct answer. The worker clearly wanted to help, as evidenced by the fact that he led me towards to the touch-screen module to demonstrate how to pick from the food choices. However, I sensed that the employee had little understanding of what he was serving, and that he was put into this position because technology came before him in handling service.

From my experience at Louis’ Deli and other Sodexo locations, I have found productive efficiency to be especially demeaning to workers and frustrating to customers. These practices are contradictory to Brandeis’ original vision of scientific management. Specifically, Brandeis argued, “The greater productivity of labor must … [be] attainable under conditions consistent with … the enjoyment of work, and the development of with individual.” Therefore, positions should improve the individual’s knowledge or ability in a specific industry, and must be intrinsically rewarding to the worker, something that cannot be achieved through awkward interactions behind paper order forms and touch-screen devices.

In order to alleviate this problem, I encourage companies like Sodexo, and other service providers, to give their employees extra responsibility and knowledge over the services that they are providing. At Louis’ Deli specifically, this means taking away the touch screen entirely, and possibly requiring the employees to read a deli cookbook, as part of their pre-work training (I personally recommend “The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook” by Sharon Lebewohl an Rena Bulkin). I also suggest that companies like Sodexo require their employees to shift their positions periodically so that they gain a wider array of experience and face less monotony from their work. This process will increase employees’ knowledge in the industry, give them more dignity and generally improve their relationship with the customers they serve.

At the end of the day, it would be great to be able to go to Louis’ Deli and have a genuine conversation with one of the employees about the deli’s sandwiches. This amended application of scientific management is a small step towards social justice, which Brandeis aspired for and can be achieved here at Brandeis University.

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