I hate bureaucracy.

And many other people do too.

It results in situations like the one I experienced today.

But where did it come from? And why do we just accept it?

The Rise of Scientific Management

During the industrial revolution, the world witnessed machines take the place of manual work. Where there once once a horse drawn cart, there was the steam train. Where there had been hand weaving, the spinning jenny took its place.

People began applying scientific process to improve almost any set of processes. And this permeated into the processes of organisations. Hierarchical and scientific management was born.

This type of management was often called Taylorism, named after one of the early writers on management, Fredrick Taylor. The basic principle was to run organisations like machines. Design them with structure , make the parts (i.e. people) work to their maximum, give them as little inputs as possible and replace parts when they get worn out.

This worked…. depending on who you ask.

Henry Ford adopted this technique. Every person on his assembly line had one job that would take between 30 and 60 seconds. They could be trained on the same day they were hired. And they were only tasked with doing that single job.

And Ford was lauded for their productivity. BUT… they also had a staff turnover rate of between 3 and 5. That meant that, effectively, the entire production plant was replaced every 2-4 months.

People saw that Taylorism worked to increase productivity. And so it spread like wildfire

Same tool, different challenges

The problem is that Taylorism works in a very specific setting. It requires a fairly routine set of tasks, with consistent inputs and outputs as well as an ability to replace the components when needed.

So this hierarchical approach might work for some things nowadays. Maybe some factories have high labour input. Accounting and law firms use a similar process with their interns.

But the reality is that even in places where this system currently applies, it is rapidly fading. Manufacturing jobs are falling away to machines, accounting and law are both becoming more automated, meaning that people themselves need to be more differentiated.

So basically,  this method doesn’t work in any role that values creativity, individualism, self-motivation, autonomy, strategic thinking, critical analysis etc. The parts are no longer as interchangeable. You can’t be innovative on a production line when you only do one tiny task.

Yet, the same Taylorist approach to managing organisations is applied from top to bottom.


No room to move

(NB: this is a bit of a rant, so brace yourself)

So here is where my issue came in today. I lecture at UCT on a part time basis. I’ll come in for one lecture every now and again, usually for only an hour or two.

In order to park on UCT campus you need to buy a disk. This involves going to the traffic department on upper campus, filling out an application form, waiting for them to print it and then sticking it in your car. The expectation is that you buy a disk for the year. This costs R1100. Buying this is unreasonable for me.

Even the monthly disks are expensive, and I never know if I’m going to visit the campus once in a month or three times.

I’m not allowed to park in visitors bays as I am a staff member

So my only option is to buy a daily disk when I go and lecture. This costs R30, involves me going to the traffic department before I lecture, filling out a form, printing a disk, returning to my car and putting the disk in. This is an absolute pain for a 1 hour lecture.

The problem is that the UCT, Taylorist system cannot cater to someone that works on a temporary basis. I’m not in the machine, therefore there is no solution for me.

This is part of the reason UCT struggled so much when it came to the protests. The machine didn’t know how to handle them. Once a cog broke down, the whole machine went with it.


So, the result of this was that I got a fine in March. For R550. I wasn’t able to query it, partly because I didn’t have my car for 8 weeks and partly because I was busy.

Today I went to query that fine. I popped in to the traffic office, waited for the person before me to finish and chatted to the officer. She told me that, because it had been so long, I had to send a formal query to the department to request that the fine get waived.

Okay, I’ll send the email then.

I get back to my car 5 min later.

And I have another fine for R600.

And was told that I needed to take it up with the traffic department.

Yes, I got a fine while sorting out a fine

Tayloring to our needs

The point here isn’t that I’m trying to be disruptive. The problem is that the UCT system cannot handle the lack of rigidity around what I do. This has been reflected in the delays in receiving payment for lecturing, in getting access to buildings and in getting a contract for my work.

Taylorism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in UCT’s case, I can understand why it’s there. They need to build the system so that it minimises problems and maximises outputs (i.e. number of graduates)

And this works if you’re producing a uniform product.

But in the 21st century we don’t need that.

We need innovation, creativity and independent thought.

And the Taylorist approach to management is never going to get us there

Image is of a Yellow UCT parking disk from two years ago.

Blog: 218/365

Song of the day: Chancha Via Circuito – La Victoria (feat. Lido Pimienta & Manu Ranks) (thanks Charly for the suggestion :D)