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Sly-entific Management 4

Previously in this series: First, Second, Third

So, what makes scientific management scientific? Originally, Taylorism was not referred to as Scientific Management, but as The Taylor Method. Taylor claimed it was rooted in scientific method, so Louis Brandeis, a progressive attorney, suggested the label. In a society crazy about science, the label stuck. So, the first reason this approach is called Scientific Management is that a clever lawyer, trying a prominent case, called it that. The case got press and the label was permanent.

Beyond branding, Taylor was adamant about distinguishing his method from rule of thumb approaches. He was troubled by the question, What constitutes a fair day's work? In classic scientific fashion, he observed and kept careful notes. From these, he tried to determine the optimal interaction between operator and machine; what he called The One Best Way.

His first focus was on lathe operators, and he had been a lathe operator. He understood that there was, by tradition, informal agreements among the operators that determined how much work would be done. He also understood from his own experience operating lathes, that this quantity was well beneath what he was capable of producing. His biographer claimed that once Taylor was promoted to a supervisory role, he felt moral outrage at the disparity.

But to replace the informally derived rate with his own a priori notions (his original strategy) created a prolonged battle between workers and management. He felt bad about having to come down so hard on people, even if they were just workers, so he sought moral as well as objective justification by applying the scientific method.

Anyone who's ever tried to determine the optimum of anything regarding people can see where his inquiry would lead him. Yes, he could finely determine optimum on paper, but people aren't paper, even if they are workers.

Taylor was not the first. Babbage dabbled in determining optimal machine performance. A French manufacturer decomposed the entire process for making pins in the 1780s. And there were efficiency experts all over the place in Taylor's time. Taylor was methodical and he was insistent. He had a way of making his calculations stick.

So, the second reason for calling it scientific is that it was designed as a scientific enquiry. Like all good science, though, between design and execution, some complications arose. Prominent among them, the disturbing fact that workers would not and sometimes just plain could not perform as Taylor prescribed. He adopted several strategies for resolving this little disparity. One was to simply fire anyone who didn't work as directed. Another was to assign only the youngest and strongest to perform the work, making it more likely that quotas would be met. A visiting British manufacturer asked, when touring a Taylor plant, where all the old workers were. The owner was reported to have pointed to the adjacent cemetery.

In practice, Taylor found that even sub-optimum design produced a lot more output than informal design had. His goal was not achieved in that he was not able to unambiguously determine optimum performance, but he could and did boost performance beyond what was possible otherwise.

His science, like much science, was not of the pure variety. His decades of experience distilled into what he called "The Principles" of scientific management, not the rules or the facts or the objective optimum. He insisted upon using the term One Best Way, however, and stuck by his story that he was conjuring science.

The third reason scientific management is considered scientific is because one of the prominent early practitioners called what he did science. Who knew from science?

Taylor's response to roadblocks was typically not very scientific. In the absence of good data, he was not above inventing data to support his perspective. His methods proved to be some improvement over the social governance common during his time, where foreman would routinely shake down workers, accepting bribes, doling out little perks, and generally holding the enterprise hostage to patronage. He produced a system more suitable for supermen than humans, and replaced one form of top down governance with another, one which might be argued, also held the enterprise hostage.

I could make a long list of the instances where industry subsumed science, and an even longer list where the temperament of the investigator did.

Taylor adopted a systematic approach to managing work. He started a very big ball rolling down a very steep hill. Yea, he was a charismatic whack job. He was brimming with the popular prejudices of his day. That his science, as I said before, succeeded only in conjunction with autocratic control lessens the science in my mind. There were others, then and following Taylor, who had other ideas about how science might improve industry.

I'll continue the story on a slightly different thread. I'm tired of Taylor. You probably are, too.

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