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100 Years of Frederick Winslow Taylor

by Ross Smith on July 29, 2011


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100 Years of Frederick Winslow Taylor

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor was a mechanical engineer who, according to Peter Drucker, “was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study.” Taylor holds forty-two patents, including several for golf and tennis related inventions.

Taylor wrote at a time when the average worker was viewed as inefficient and sluggish. There was a fear among workers that if they were more productive, there would be less work to go around. His Principles of Scientific Management was directed at improving worker efficiency. He felt that the “the remedy for this inefficiency lies in systematic management, rather than in searching for some unusual or extraordinary man.”:

  1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.
  3. Provide "Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker's discrete task" (Montgomery 1997: 250).
  4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

It’s interesting to see how things have changed—and how they have not —over the last century. Common workplace features like the organizational chart, annual performance evaluations, productivity metrics, and sales targets are the progeny of Taylor’s principles. And yet, the moonshots, and the majority of the innovative stories, hacks, and barriers on the MiX, take an almost 180-degree turn from Taylor’s Principles.

Taylor suggests, “The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.”

One of the goals of the MIX, on the other hand, is to “expand the scope of employee autonomy:” “Too many people in organizations feel powerless to initiate change. Rigid policy guidelines, tight spending limits, and a lack of self-directed time limit individual autonomy and undermine the organization’s capacity to renew itself. Companies must redesign management systems so they facilitate local experimentation and bottom-up initiatives.”

And yet, perhaps Taylor was not so far off. In his hack, Don’t Just Flatten the Organization, Make Everyone Accountable for Flattening Time-Sucking Bureaucratic Systems, Chris Grams seems to echo Taylor when he says, “consider putting employees and managers to work on solving the bureaucracy problem. You can begin by tying compensation, rewards, and recognition not just to how well a group performs financially, but how it does at eliminating the layers of bureaucracy that stop their teams from getting even more work done more quickly.”

Taylor describes it as “the work planned in advance in this way constitutes a task which is to be solved, as explained above, not by the workman alone, but in almost all cases by the joint effort of the workman and the management.” The hack continues to suggest, “Many people define a good manager as someone who helps remove the barriers that stop people in their organization from getting their work done. In essence, this system simply rewards the managers that do this well. At the same time, it creates a feedback mechanism for all managers to quickly learn where they can improve.”

In her hack, Demolish management, and let communities in, Cynthia Wallis Barnicoat proposes something similar to Chris, but quite different from Taylor, “Leadership must be redefined, starting with the destruction of the traditional hierarchy, and moving to a concept of shared leadership. This change is viable if the organisation is going to retain the concept of ‘leadership’, but going a step further, a suggested solution for the sector is to demolish leadership completely.” However, the shared effort between worker and manager is consistent, “Employees will have equal rights and say, strengthening their position in the organization.”

Gary Hamel talks about the transformation from Taylor (and others) in Three Forces Disrupting Management. “This transition from an agrarian and craft-based society to an industrial economy required an epical re-socialization of the work force. Unruly and independent-minded farmers, artisans and day laborers had to be transformed into rule-following, forelock-tugging employees. And 100 years on, this work continues, with organizations around the world still working hard to strap rancorous and free-thinking human beings into the strait-jacket of institutionalized obedience, conformance, and discipline.”

As we recognize the 100th anniversary of Taylor’s work, let’s finish as he does. In 1911, he advocated his scientific principles, postulating that improvements in management “would readily in the future double the productivity of the average man engaged in industrial work. Think of what this means to the whole country. Think of the increase, both in the necessities and luxuries of life, which becomes available for the whole country, of the possibility of shortening the hours of labor when this is desirable, and of the increased opportunities for education, culture, and recreation which this implies.”

I believe some of those same aspirations are still true today, and are alive and flourishing in everyone who is contributing to the MiX. So perhaps, despite massive technological, social, demographic, and political change over the last 100 years, many of our basic human beliefs in how we work maybe have not really changed at all… :)

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