Sly-entific Management

Read your history. Not the retrospective history written from the distance of today, but the history published as daily dispatches in newspapers and the original writings of those who went on to make history. There you will find a different texture, because none of the authors knew what would come next, though many assumed they did. History stands upon folly enlivened by circumstance.

The word 'manager' has existed for about one hundred and seventy-five years; 'scientist' for perhaps just a few years longer. The melding of these two new concepts didn't take hold until two generations later. By then, corporations had grown beyond proprietorships manageable by the owner into geographically-dispersed, culture-straddling entities which were, by traditional means, unmanageable.

American Telegraph was one of the first corporations to outgrow their founders' britches. Organized as a network of remote shop floors, daily operations in each location was ceded to a supervisor, rather like a shop foreman, who's primary job was to direct laborers. The board of directors made decisions as seemingly insignificant as the purchase of fifty telegraph poles for the Tucson office. Their board meeting minutes, written in the fine secretary hand of the day, preserved in the archives at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, make some of the most mind-numbing reading available anywhere.

While that board nattered over trivial matters, a few seemingly insignificant discussions were recorded, like the questioning of the value received from a hundred dollar payment to one Thomas Alva Edison, who believed he could transmit voices over telegraph wires. Meh!

By 1900, a new generation of college educated engineers entered industry. They served as a medium between the aristocratic owners, who had by long tradition maintained a studied indifference to shop floor practices, and the shop floor employees, who were responsible for actually producing stuff. By that time, owners had grown skilled in producing prices: monopolizing markets, stifling supply, and smothering wages, but were unaware of the negative influences these practices had on long-term viability. These college-educated engineers discovered a lot of gold these aristocrats were leaving on the table.

Among them, Frederick Winslow Taylor is acknowledged as the Father of Scientific Management. It was his idea to formalize inventory, having been inspired by the then new Dewey Decimal System for classifying library books. He carried this penchant for organizing on into the flow of work across a factory, routinizing what he could, creating standard practices he labeled 'The One Best Way."

The question, of course, was what the aristocrats, who knew little and cared less about the means of production, would do with this new science. One needn't be a student of anyone's history to reasonably predict the answer.

The first twenty years of the twentieth century saw the greatest labor unrest in the history of our republic, and God bless us, it should have. Faced with improved throughput, which flooded monopolized markets with increasing quantities of goods, prices naturally fell. To maintain profits, the geniuses in charge cut worker wages and even idled factories in response to what the owners labeled 'over-production.' The laborers, who in many cases worked six twelve hour days for slave wages, rebelled.

Between 1900 and 1920, industrial profits expanded as much as 400% under the growing influence of scientific management. Labor rates increased no more than 40%. A revolution in more than shop-floor practices seemed unavoidable.

Taylor was elected Executive Director of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers around 1900. His first act mandated that the Society be managed according to the principles of scientific management. This induced a struggle that lasted as long as Taylor's tenure, and encouraged the Society to choose its old governing process once Taylor retired. What was good enough for the laborers was apparently unworkable for their executives.

In the background, Taylor's former lieutenant, Henry Laurence Gantt, started one of the first private management consulting firms. After nearly twenty years working as an employee of various manufacturing companies, the company he worked for went under in the Panic of 1897, so Gantt put out his shingle and prospered. But while there's no evidence that Taylor's years organizing shop floor operations ever influenced his self confidence that he (or some other duly qualified scientific manager) could scientifically determine any worker's One Best Way to work, Gantt's experience differed.

... to be continued ...

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