Performance Improvement Through the Ages



Managers have been trying to improve the performance of their workers for as long as there have been managers.  Some of them were good at it; some of them were horrible.  It was an art, a social art, not a science. Working by trial and error, a few managers got lucky, but it was viewed as a personal success, not a systematic improvement of the organization.

Today we use Performance Technology to improve human performance systematically, but we can still benefit from historical examples that produced results, system or no system.

This department is a repository for both the successes and the failures that we run across while researching other things.  Your contributions are most welcome.  Just submit your quotation and its source to the editors ( ), with “Performance Management through the ages” as the lead heading.

Silent Monitor Grading

Robert Owen (1771–1858) (see Figure 1) was one of the most important and controversial figures of his generation. He lived through the ages of Enlightenment and Romanticism and was personally touched by the ideas and dramatic changes that characterised that era. Profiting enormously during the first half of his life from the progress of industry and having the financial means, he later devoted himself to publicising and practising his social and economic ideas. Most of these derived from Enlightenment notions and, he thought, could eliminate poverty and crime, contributing to social and moral betterment.

Figure 1.Mary Ann Knight, Robert Owen, c.1799

… the most interesting innovation (possibly adapted from Lancaster’s badge system of credits and rewards in the classroom) was the ‘silent monitor’ or ‘telegraph’, a wooden block hung above each machine, which showed at a glance by colour-coding the previous day’s performance and was also duly noted by overseers in ‘books of character’.

 The ‘silent monitor’ was coloured either white (denoting excellent), yellow (good), blue (indifferent), or black (bad). You may wonder how workers would have reacted to this device and the recording of their conduct, and also what Owen was trying to achieve by this.

These are interesting questions, as we have little direct testimony from workers themselves. Some would have resented it, much as they did Owen’s other reforms, though they would not have had much option about accepting it. Given that it was probably tied to some sort of system of rewards, which we don’t know much about in detail, the device may have been less punitive than it seems. But clearly Owen was trying to do more than record productivity, as the ‘silent monitor’ was essentially a means of measuring ‘character’ or ‘behaviour’.

Excerpts from: Robert Owens and New Lanark, Open University course A207-12        
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Construction of the Panama Canal



Division of Simplified Practice

–  from Cochrane, Rexmond C., Measures for Progress: A History of the National Bureau of Standards. Washington D. C. ; U. S. Government Printing Office. 1966.