Machine Metaphor in Organizations
The machine metaphor for an organization is one of two orthodox metaphors, the other being the organization as an organism (Morgan, 1980). The machine metaphor dates to the work of Fayol and Taylor, wherein the organization was understood as a series of parts, each with a specific, mechanistic role to play in the organization's success (Morgan, 1980). This metaphor not only included machines and fixed assets, but also viewed employees as tools in much the same way. They are to perform specific tasks as outlined by management, and would be measured in terms of their ability to perform these tasks accurately and quickly. The machine metaphor thus reduced labor to the role of a tool. Managers in this model seek to design their machine, by way of allocating resources to specific tasks at specific times, in order that the machine could optimize output. The machine metaphor was apt in manufacturing in particular, where much of the organization's labor base worked as machine operators, or otherwise performed fairly routine tasks. While automation and international outsourcing has reduced the relevance of the metaphor, there remain organizations that can be easily examined through the theoretical lens of the machine metaphor, including FedEx Express.
FedEx as a Machine
FedEx Express, the overnight arm of the logistics company, is designed around the machine metaphor. The structure of the organization was developed in the 1970s, based around the military model that founder and CEO Fred Smith experienced while serving in the U.S. Marines (Smith, 2008). The infrastructure was conceived as an organization consisting of a hub and satellite locations, each capable of processing locally, with the central hub handling the majority of the shipments between each satellite location. The company would physically grow to incorporate routes for drivers, and other elements of the machine. The different locations were identical, in the way that different parts of a machine that perform the same task are all identical. Think of tanks at a brewery. They might all have different types of beer in them, but they all do the same job of fermenting and conditioning the product. Each location of FedEx is like that -- essentially the same, performing the same task.
The role of workers within FedEx is also machine-like, in line with the orthodox view of the organization as machine. This view has traditionally not placed a high value on workers who express creativity or novel approaches to problems. Indeed, FedEx guides every step of the employees' roles, including how many stops they should make, and best practices for each critical task, to ensure that each individual employee performs each task more or less the same way. It is known that human beings approach complex problems quite a bit differently than machines do (Baskin, 2000), but FedEx has sought to have management learn from the company's collective experiences to regiment not only what each worker does, but how they do it, and even when. There is only a minimal amount of worker autonomy. As a machine's performance hinges on its design and its ability to execute its tasks in the proposed manner, this is the same for the different categories of workers at FedEx. Management is responsible for the success of each station, by way of directing the workers, and the workers are only tasked with precision execution of their daily tasks. Where there are defects or deviations, those are likely to be "operator error" where an employee has done something against company policy.
A machine can be improved, usually by somebody examining the machine and its tasks, then examining the feedback that the machine provides, and subsequently changing parts or adjusting the machine's design. This is more or less the process that FedEx uses. One of the valuable aspects of machines, in line with the traditional Taylorist orthodoxy, is that machine outputs can almost always be quantified. Decision-making at FedEx heavily emphasizes quantification. Data is used to determine best practices for overall performance. Because the company tracks each package, each route and each worker, it has an incredible amount of data that helps it to determine ways where the machine can be improved. An individual machine improvement -- say a new way of performing a task at one single station -- can usually be extrapolated throughout the entire company. This is because the machines within the company (in this case, each station) are very similar, and also because proposals for change are backed by a large amount of data that demonstrates...
The machine metaphor, with its emphasis on bureaucracy and rules, should apply just as readily to the other parts of the organization as it does to the operations side. The staff functions serve as support to the machine. Finance, marketing, accounting and the other staff functions are almost like adjuncts to the machine, as opposed to being parts of the machine themselves. Finance and accounting might best fit the metaphor as the fuel that powers the machine -- a critical input that allows the machine to work but does not necessarily help the machine in its tasks. Marketing would relate more to machine capacity -- the machine capacity has to expand or contract based on marketing. The marketing function itself is less machine-like in its nature, simply because sales often involves the very human task of relationship formation. Yet, there is the theory that sales itself can be a very machine-like process, characterized by a formal sales process, with sales managers giving emphasis to process discipline so that all sales staff can emulate the success of star performers (Adamson, Dixon and Toman, 2013). Certainly at FedEx the other functions are also regimented. They are machines, and their function is tethered to the function of the core operational machine. The staff functions are, in essence, the other machines that support the main machine. If FedEx's operations are a pizza oven, the other machines in the company are cooking sauce, grating cheese and slicing toppings. They are not the star of the show, but without them, the end product will simply not be the same.
The organization is guided by a set of values and principles. Many of these have been operationalized into metrics, though this is not the case for all values. Some values, such as those relating to customer service, have been operationalized and used to evaluate machine performance. Moreover, the design of the machine is based on some such principles, such as making every delivery on time. The machine's design is specifically optimized to meet customer needs, and where adjustments are made it is typically to improve performance with respect to the customer. There are, however, human variables that are not taken into account by the machine metaphor. Where FedEx says "People, Service, Profit" it reflects a value set that focuses on the needs of employees, and empowering them to perform. But the way that the company is designed does not truly reflect this -- employees are empowered mainly by being given a substantial amount of guidance, so that they may perform their function within the machine to their best, enabling the machine to optimize its performance overall.
Strengths & Weaknesses of the Metaphor
One of the weaknesses of the machine metaphor is that it inherently downplays the role of component parts within the machine to influence the machine. In an actual machine, component parts simply perform functions, and there is no room for them to demonstrate autonomy. Even in a mechanistic, militaristic, bureaucratic company like FedEx, that is not necessarily the case. While many individuals do not exert that much influence, they are not robots, and thus they can demonstrate the ability to make the machine work better, through innovative ideas. The machine, perhaps, is self-learning, but self-learning function is not explicitly built into the machine at FedEx -- it is something that can and sometimes does arise organically. Tying into this is the idea that the metaphor creates specific language that must be used to describe the organization, but no metaphor is ever perfect. There will always be places where the metaphor falls apart. One such place tends to be where human beings act like human beings, not as machines -- the machine metaphor has trouble accounting for that, at least in its orthodox form (Koch & Deetz, 2009). In a more modern interpretation, where machines have advanced processing software, perhaps the metaphor can still hold, but one hundred years ago when the metaphor was being developed obviously learning machines were not envisioned nor part of the metaphor at that time.
But overall, the metaphor is fairly strong, because this is an organization that was built on the principles of bureaucracy and hierarchy. The elements of the company are designed to function to perfection, or as close to it as possible, by analyzing data and seeking to optimize results based…
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