In the early days of mass production, much was made of the ‘monotony’ of the assembly line as every worker was subordinated to the speed of the slowest person in the line and confined to one process repeated endlessly.

Monotony was put over against the creative work of the artist or musician and blamed for employee unrest.

However, every job or profession involves a certain amount of routine. Even the concert pianist, seen as being highly creative, has to endure the tedious practice of scales!

Experiments have shown that monotony is not the real cause of worker agitation.

Attention and recognition

The Western Electric Company at Hawthorne, Illinois, conducted experiments in the late 1920s by intentionally worsening conditions under which the workers operated, making them even more monotonous. Yet it was found that productivity of workers actually increased, their fatigue was reduced and job satisfaction rose as long as the attention and recognition they received was increased.

It was not the routine and monotony that produced dissatisfaction but the absence of recognition, the lack of understanding of meaning in the work, and the relation of the employee’s work to the whole operation.

Importance and achievement

At the beginning of World War II, an aircraft manufacturer on the West Coast of America was faced with what seemed an insurmountable problem of bad morale among the workers: absenteeism, strikes, slowdowns and slipshod work. Increases in wages, shorter hours, better transportation and child minding facilities brought no improvement.

Finally it was found that the workers had never seen any of the planes they were producing. They did not know where the part they had worked on in the assembly line fitted, or were told how important that part was in the total functioning of the plane and of the war effort.

A big bomber was brought in and displayed on the factory grounds. The workers and their wives and children were invited to inspect it and to sit in it. They were shown the part they were making in the bomber and its importance was explained to them by a crew member.

Unrest and bad morale disappeared at once.

The major problem with monotonous jobs is not just mechanical but social.

Leaders and managers in business need to create a culture where employees find satisfaction and meaning in their work. They must know what they are doing and why. They are not just working for a pay cheque.

A culture of attention and recognition of employees and giving them a sense of having achieved something of importance in the business is the key to increased productivity.

Source: Concept of the Corporation, Peter F. Drucker
(Based on the presentations of ‘Leadership’ and ‘People’ at the BOC, Sydney 2015)