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Time and motion study, or motion and time study, is a basic set of tools used by industrial engineers to increase operational efficiency through work simplification and the setting of standards, usually in combination with a wage-incentive system designed to increase worker motivation. Originally developed to drive productivity improvement in manufacturing plants, motion and time study is also now used in service industries.
Motion and time study is associated with the so-called scientific management movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, primarily with the work of industrial engineers Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), Frank B. Gilbreth (18681924), and Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972). Some time studies had been conducted before Taylor, particularly by French engineer Jean Rodolphe Perronet (1708-1794) and English economist Charles Babbage (1791-1871), both analyzing pin manufacturing. However, modern motion and time study was developed as part of the scientific management movement championed by Taylor and eventually became known as Taylorism.
The foundation of Taylorism is a system of task management in which responsibilities are clearly divided between managers and workers. Managers and engineers engage in planning and task optimization, primarily through motion and time study, while workers are responsible for carrying out discrete tasks as directed. The Gilbreths sought to find the best method to perform an operation and reduce fatigue by studying body motions, attempting to eliminate unnecessary ones and simplify necessary ones to discover the optimal sequence of motions. The Gilbreths developed the technique of micromotion study, in which motions are filmed and then watched in slow motion. Taylor incorporated early research from the Gilbreths in his The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), and subsequent industrial engineers further developed the Taylorist system.
Taylorism played a key role in the continuous productivity improvement generated by the Fordist model of work organization. The Fordist model, which is based on the supply-driven, mass production of standardized goods using semiskilled workers, achieved efficiency improvements via scale economies and detailed division of labor, both accomplished through the Taylorist separation of conception from execution, in which managers plan tasks that workers execute.
Taylor argued that such a division of labor between management and workers was a form of “harmonious cooperation” that ultimately removed antagonisms from the workplace and benefited both managers and workers. However, this process of separating conception from execution is often understood as a form of de-skilling, and Taylorism has been rejected by unions, who have denounced it as a form of speedup that harms workers and hence quality and productivity.
Debates about the effect of motion and time study on workers continue today in discussions of post-Fordism, particularly lean production, which employs motion and time study to set standards and achieve continuous improvement in work processes, but in a context of demand-driven production without large buffers of in-process inventory. Some workers and commentators argue that motion and time study under lean production is simply a form of work intensification that is detrimental to workers, while others argue that under lean production workers are able to contribute to problem solving and standard setting and thus prefer motion and time study under lean production to that under Fordism.
Underlying each system is a theory of worker motivation—that workers need to be coerced (in the Fordist model) or that workers want to do their best and are interested in more intellectual activity (in the post-Fordist model). In reality, there is more likely a distribution of different motivations across workers, and worker well-being is likely to depend more on the interaction between individual orientations toward work and how a given set of methods such as motion and time study are applied in a particular work context.
- Adler, Paul. 1995. “Democratic Taylorism”: The Toyota Production System at NUMMI. In Lean Work: Empowerment and Exploitation in the Global Auto Industry, ed. Steve Babson, 207–219. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
- George, Claude S., Jr. 1972. The History of Management Thought. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Niebel, Benjamin W. 1993. Motion and Time Study. 9th ed. Homewood, IL: Irwin.
- Taylor, Frederick Winslow.  1998. The Principles of Scientific Management. Mineola, NY: Dover.
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