In 2001 the Academy of Management voted Frederick W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) the most influential management book of the 20th century.
In 1880 Taylor started conducting experiments to try and determine the best way to develop “each man to his greatest efficiency”. Over the following thirty five years he distilled down a system that lead the transformation of industry from craft production into mass production.
His work was so influential, it didn’t stop there. Jeremy Rifkin, in Time Ware, said Taylor “made efficiency the cardinal virtue of American culture”. He want on to claim—like many others have—that Taylor “has probably had a greater effect on the private and public lives of the men and women of the 20th century than any other single individual”. High praise.
Reflecting on the ninety years of “the most influential book on management ever published”, the Academy of Management in it’s vote concluded that “the fundamental principles of Taylor’s philosophy are as valid today as they were in his time”.
First principles first
While most of Taylor’s seminal book is spent laying out the basic components of his system, it is interesting that the book was entitled the Principles of Scientific Management. Why principles?
Taylor was convinced his science of task management was superior, but only when “resting upon clear principles as a foundation”. He referred to these principles as “a certain philosophy”. He understood that no lasting change would come from just bolting new practices onto old principles.
So what were these foundational principles of management on which mass production was built?
Taylor was famous for his belief that there was “one best way” to perform “every single act of every workman”. He would monitor a worker’s every move with his stop-watch, reduce it down to it’s constituent parts, and then issue “detailed written instructions as to the best way of doing each piece of work”. These cards would then “replace the judgment of the individual workman”.
Rather than the “old-fashioned herding of men in large gangs”, individual workers should be assigned to jobs that best match their capability in order to achieve maximum efficiency. “Whereas in the past he chose his own work”, now workers were moved around “very much as chessmen are moved on a chessboard”.
The environment in which these factories operated was relatively stable and predictable, and so the organisations weren’t designed to accommodate change. They were built for discipline and efficiency, through the habitual reproduction of simple, repetitive tasks. Taylor described “the grinding monotony of work of this character”.
Separation of workers and thinkers
Taylor felt it was clear that “one type of man is needed to plan ahead, and an entirely different type to execute the work”. Management took on a new life in this period with the subdivision of labour between thinkers and doers: “When this man tells you to walk, you walk; when he tells you to sit down, you sit down, and you don’t talk back at him.”
Taylor considered most workers of “the mentally sluggish type”, and concluded the most effective way to motivate them was to keep their “attention fixed on the high wages which he wants”.
To illustrate the point, he captures a conversation he has with one of his workers Henry Noll:
Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?
What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.
Oh, come now, you answer my questions. What I want to find out is whether you are a high-priced man or one of these cheap fellows here.
What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all those cheap fellows are getting.
Oh, you’re aggravating me. Of course you want $1.85 a day — every one wants it!
For goodness’ sake answer my questions, and don’t waste any more of my time.
Now come over here. You see that pile of pig-iron? You see that car? Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will load that pig iron on that car tomorrow for $1.85.
Now do wake up and answer my question. Tell me whether you are a high-priced man or not.
To help put these principles in context, it helps to also understand how Taylor viewed the nature of the work being done, and the people doing it.
The work is basic
This work is so crude and elementary in its nature that I firmly believe that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient iron handler than any man can be.
The workers are basic
The great majority of our men are…so stupid that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type….So stupid that the word “percentage” has no meaning to him.
Workers were plentiful
We had not the slightest difficulty in getting all the men who were needed
Man as machine
In fairness to Taylor, although he was the pioneer, he wasn’t alone here. These were the principles of the day. People were seen as physical tools inconveniently necessary in the production line. Henry Ford — who at this same time invented the moving assembly line — asked “why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”
Clearly now times have changed. Most of our organisations today rely on the value created when people use their cognitive abilities more so than their physical abilities, what Peter Drucker famously dubbed “knowledge work”.
But that begs the question then, why are the scholars of the Academy of Management claiming Taylor’s principles to be “as valid today as they were in his time”?
The fact is that so much of the way most organisations are run today is still rooted in these 100+ year old principles.
Management divides work into tasks, and assigns to individuals. Managers review performance. Compensation correlates with rank. Bonuses motivate. Power trickles down. Authority is vested in positions. Strategies are set at the top.
The default way structure and manage our organisations has gone relatively unchallenged and unchanged.
However the environments in which we now deploy these deeply held principles have changed significantly. The accelerating pace of change today is bringing an increasing number of leaders to the realisation that the old principles have now become a liability.
We need a new way
Many great and innovative companies have been blazing a new trail for years now. Successful companies that are reaping the rewards of a more adaptable, innovative, and passionate organisation. However, as Taylor warned, you can’t just copy individual practices from these leading companies and hope they stick. Downloading Amazon’s checklist for performance reviews won’t help you replicate their culture of innovation. You must start with a set of principles. And if Taylor’s were the principles of the 20th century, we need new a set for the 21st.
We need innovative organisations that explore new opportunities and experiment with ideas.
We need more flexible, adaptive organisations that can quickly sense and respond to change.
We need teams of empowered people, trusted to make decisions and use their best judgement.
We need transparency so that people are armed with the information and context necessary to make smart decisions.
We need more networked arrangements, where power can more easily move towards people who create value and away from ones that aren’t.
And we need organisations with a clear purpose, so that people can have a reason to turn up beyond a just a pay-cheque.