Time and motion studies caused problems as they solved them, so what’s next for industrial engineering - and how come Japan got it right, asks E&T.
Go back 25 years, and every factory had an industrial engineering department busy carrying out time and motion studies together with all those other techniques that were supposed to make manufacturing so much more productive: method study, group technology, activity sampling and ergonomic analysis.
Take a look at Rotherham-based Martek Marine, though. Founded just ten years ago, it manufactures and distributes a wide variety of safety and environmental equipment for the world's shipping lines - container vessels, dry cargo ships, cruise liners and car ferries. It's a product line with a significant engineering content, and the £6m business employs no fewer than a dozen project engineers.
One thing their role doesn't embrace is disciplines such as time and motion studies, and so far Martek hasn't felt the need for such expertise. Fast-growing, profitable and successful, it employs no industrial engineers, uses none of these techniques, and may never do so.
'Essentially, their role is to get involved in specifying and designing the products, and then planning the manufacture, testing and delivery of systems to ships,' explains co-founder and director Steve Coulson.
And Martek, it turns out, is far from unusual. These days, industrial engineering departments are very much a rarity: businesses may make occasional use of the techniques once carried out by industrial engineering, but the function itself - and its former importance - has very much declined.
'In eight years here, I haven't seen a single request come through from a client looking for an industrial engineer,' says Mike Rowles, a managing consultant at Stourbridge-headquartered Jonathan Lee Recruitment, and himself a former manufacturing engineer.
Craig Slater, a director at the Manchester office of Roevin, a specialist technical and engineering recruitment services agency, concurs: 'There seems to be no demand: we haven't been asked to find any.'
Yet industrial engineering - and its toolkit of time and motion studies and other productivity-boosting techniques - has a rich heritage. Indeed, it's one that stretches back over a century, beginning with the pioneering work of American engineer Frederick W Taylor (1856-1915), who sought to improve industrial efficiency through measurement and numeric analysis.
Regarded as the father of scientific management, and the author of 42 patents, Taylor was - as management guru Peter Drucker put it - 'the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study'.
The gilbreth motion
And if Taylor supplied the 'time' part of 'time and motion', it fell to the husband and wife team of fellow Americans Frank and Lillian Gilbreth to supply the 'motion' part. Their work in the 1920s and 1930s showed how productivity could be increased by reducing the motions necessary to perform a task.
A well-known Gilbreth experiment, for instance, found that it was possible to reduce the number of motions in laying a brick from 18 to around five - not only increasing productivity, but also decreasing fatigue.
And it was the Gilbreths who developed what they called therbligs ('therblig' being 'Gilbreth' spelled almost backwards), a classification scheme comprising 18 basic hand motions that is still encountered today.
Yet despite this heritage, as reports from manufacturing's front line reveal, it seems that industrial engineering has fallen out of favour.
So what happened? Why did a function that seemed set for longevity suddenly disappear?
It turns out that there isn't a single clear answer. In part, broad workplace changes contributed to industrial engineering's decline - as they did to the typewriter, the secretary, and the mimeographed internal memo.
And in part, too, other - and perhaps better - techniques and approaches arose. Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and continuous improvement, for example, clearly target many of the same benefits but require no dedicated function to deliver and monitor them.
What is clear, though, is that in retrospect the decline in industrial engineering was apparent long before it was widely acknowledged.
'Industrial engineering was a 1960s solution to a 1960s problem,' says David Mayle, the head of the centre for innovation, knowledge and enterprise at The Open University Business School, and himself a veteran of 1970s British management. 'By 1979, the writing was on the wall, even though a number of businesses weren't reading it.'
'Back in the 1960s, British management was too confident, and too sanguine,' he says. 'The 60s was a time when the UK had both industry and engineering: Japan wasn't seen as a threat, and nobody saw any need to change how things were done.'
And by the time that Japanese exports had become a threat - and British motorcycle, television, car and engineering factories were closing or contracting as a result - it quickly became apparent that it wasn't Japanese industry's superiority in industrial engineering that was spearheading their success. At least, not in the conventional sense of time and motion studies and activity sampling.
Shockingly, visit after visit to Japanese factories turned up the same disturbing news: Japanese workers were far more productive, yet industrial engineering departments were entirely lacking. Prowess in quality, process design, workplace organisation and productivity, it turned out, came from quite different techniques.
'Ironically, the Japanese had been inspired by some of the West's greatest management thinkers and innovators: Deming, Crosby, and Taylor - but had taken their insights in a different direction,' says Mayle.
More specifically, it turned out that the Japanese had chosen to improve productivity by engaging with the workforce, rather than measuring and monitoring them.
And the contrast was stark.
'Twenty-five years ago, you had a large team of guys on the shopfloor with stopwatches,' recalls Simon Griffiths, chief executive of the Manufacturing Advisory Service, West Midlands. 'It was often confrontational, frequently involving trades union representation and participation.'
And as many managers from those times recall only too well, the combination of confrontation and union monitoring produced times and techniques that were negotiated compromises, rather than serious attempts to define the art of the possible. Often, indeed, the industrial engineer with the stopwatch was a complaint part of this negotiation - settling on a comprise time simply to get the job done.
In short, the contrast with the search for perfection envisaged by pioneers such as Taylor couldn't be more plainly put. Standard operating procedures and their associated timings often turned out to be no more than a fudge, with the original stopwatch times softened by any number of ameliorating factors.
The new techniques from Japan cut through all this, replacing confrontation and compromise with co-operation.
'Kaizen and continuous improvement were much less confrontational,' says Griffiths. 'It was the people on the shopfloor who were doing it, not industrial engineers with stopwatches. The increase in employee engagement and buy-in was enormous.'
The new techniques also stressed that improvement was a collaborative process, and not the sole responsibility of a single individual with a clipboard and stopwatch. Multi-disciplinary teams or groups, in short, delivered better results than a single individual.
Drawing in representatives from manufacturing engineering, design engineering, operations management and shopfloor employees, a group effort could not only usually identify a better solution, but then move on to implement it quicker and more reliably, as well.
No wonder, perhaps, that industrial engineering began to decline. For all the shortcomings of the early 1980s and 1990s implementations of lean, kaizen and continuous improvement, there was no denying the positive impact that they had on previously-strained workplace relations.
And in parallel, another change in the workplace accelerated the pace at which industrial engineering declined.
'In the 1970s and 1980s, the measurement of work was linked to pay, via individual incentive schemes,' says Phil Scotcher, general manager of Ilfracombe, Devon-based TDK-Lambda, a manufacturer of electrical power supplies that dates back to 1959. 'Employees were paid for meeting or exceeding a standard time or rate, and penalised for not.'
The downside, of course, was that as a result of being paid like individuals, employees acted like individuals. Again, the memories are often painful for those who were there.
'Across UK industry, you'd see operators performing individual pieces of work, maximising their own earnings - even as they generated piles of work-in-progress, or poor quality output that wouldn't be detected until it reached a subsequent work station some time later,' says Scotcher. 'And the payment system was encouraging this behaviour.'
In short, sums up Scotcher, 'at its most stark, it was a system that gave workers license to perform a task in a way that would maximise their own earnings, rather than in a way that was best for the business'.
Change in behaviour
As veterans such as Scotcher and the Manufacturing Advisory Service's Griffiths observe, the 1980s saw British industry transformed by a series of workplace initiatives that strived to link individual pieces of work together to form seamless processes.
Cellular production, flowlines, kanban-based pull-scheduling systems, Just in Time, lean manufacturing: yes, these were productivity-enhancing improvement techniques, and ones that also offered employee participation.
But they offered something else. For if at the 'micro' level they were about optimising the way that work was performed, then at the 'macro' level they were about optimising the use of resources: inventory levels, physical footprint, and capacity.
So the idea was to eliminate inter-station buffers of work-in-progress, and link the pace of production to the actual level of demand with pull-scheduling systems such as kanban cards, or their electronic equivalents, governing the rate of output. In short, there was simply no logic to rewarding over-producing - and often no physical means of over-producing anyway: if components aren't there, and don't exist, then they cannot be worked upon.
The result was inevitable. 'Individual incentive schemes disappeared - and with them, the individual measurement of work,' sums up Scotcher. In short, with other means available for generating workplace productivity improvements, and no need for time and motion studies in order to drive payment systems, industrial engineering went into terminal decline.
That said, time and motion studies haven't died out completely. TDK-Lambda itself makes periodic use of them when introducing a new product.
'It gives us a baseline standard time for costing purposes,' says Scotcher, who readily admits to occasionally missing the certainty that a time and motion study provided.
And Martek Marine, too, hasn't ruled out the possibility of time and motion studies at some point in the future - albeit, like TDK-Lambda, only for new product development.
But as a discipline, industrial engineering's fate seems sealed. Occasional time and motion studies apart, the function's image, it seems, is wrong.
The irony, notes Hugh Williams, managing director of High Wycombe-based improvement consultancy Hughenden Consulting, is that while time and motion-based techniques are still to be found within approaches such as lean and kaizen, the discipline that fostered them has fallen out of fashion.
'Lean manufacturing and its ilk have become fashionable in a way that industrial engineering simply isn't,' he says. 'Companies talking about 'adopting lean', or 'adopting kaizen' - whereas they never say 'let's adopt industrial engineering'.'
In short, almost a century after Frederick Taylor died from pneumonia a day after his 59th birthday, the discipline that he founded is also lingering in intensive care - suffering from a severe attack of being unfashionable.