Fighting The Global War Against Taylorism

Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management
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.



Schmaltz’ Principles of Practical Performance
1. Leverage rule-of-thumb wisdom by appreciating differences in perspective.
2. Work together in community to more fully acknowledge the context governing purpose, and design situated approaches for creating sustainable value.
3. Match work with the preferences of individuals.
4. Acknowledge and appreciate the necessity of self-management to the discovery, definition, and realization of purpose and the creation of lasting value.


1. Acknowledging the Way It Is

I did not catch the bug. Or, perhaps I am just recovering from it. Some accuse me of betraying my class. Others, of heresy. I have been questioning the foundation upon which business and industry is presumed to run. I say presumed to run because I’ve grown to believe that this foundation is much more presumptive than genuine.

A couple of years ago, Rob Austin, Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School, invited me to his annual innovation symposium, the centerpiece of which was a presentation prepared by Austin describing his research into the sources of business innovation. His research involved filming innovators at work, then, through a process of rigorous observation, cataloging the behaviors common to innovators.

Rob had developed a shorthand notation to describe observations and trained a few graduate students in its use. He claimed objectivity because different observers similarly classified actions when viewing the same film.

I sat teetering between boredom and fascination throughout this presentation. Rob’s method was doubtless scientific, but to what end? He might prove that he can condition graduate students, the lab rats of higher education, to observe and interpret in the same way, but then what? Would knowing, for instance, that the observed innovators opened up conversation rather than dominating it translate into anything useful to the aspiring innovator? I couldn’t stretch my meager imagination to believe it could.

No innovator was observed carefully cataloging the actions of other innovators. This omission was not scientifically observable, yet it seemed a material contribution to—and the very soul of—the practice of innovating. Vaguely acknowledged rules of thumb seemed adequate to guide the innovators, while Rob’s study of innovation demanded statistical rigor, proven objectivity, and repeatable methods. Curiously, innovation involves none of these. It thrives on gut feel over statistical rigor, sensitivity to subjective qualities over objective observation, and blazing trails rather than replicating them.

But what method could describe—let alone prescribe and induce—gut feel, subjective sensitivity, and unique response? Kind of a paradox, isn’t it?

I can’t argue that scientific analysis is impossible for some kinds of work. Mechanical work has long been well-represented by flow charts and innumerable similar process diagramming methods, because machines are programmatic. They are designed to do what they are told to do, and they can be engineered to behave. The recipe for insanity starts when this innocent technique starts charting unchartable territory. Like Rob’s scientific investigation of innovation, charts can be produced describing even the most subjective experiences, but how could anyone know whether the resulting charts represent the successful training of graduate students or an accurate—let alone useful—portrait of subjectivity? Distilled into predictive process descriptions, even love couldn’t help but seem understandable.

Poor Rob. He had managed to attract National Science Foundation funding, but had chosen a paradoxical field of study. The best his techniques might produce is a homogenization of something only useful raw, an absurd average, a silly statistic. But why would anyone chase such chimera? For science? For fortune? For fame?

What If Mechanical Engineers Ruled The World?

Austin seems to have stumbled into Frederick Winslow Taylor’s first principle of scientific management. Taylor, a nineteenth-century mechanical engineer, developed four engineering principles he claimed would dramatically improve all work. His first principle: Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.

Sounds very much like Austin’s tactic, doesn’t it? The mechanical engineer’s world is mechanical, prescriptive, predictive. Unlike the pattern-producing chaos other world views describe, the mechanical engineer inhabits a tidy, knowable universe, or one capable of being tidied up. So they tidy. They hammer and nail and paint, oblivious to deeper philosophical questions, focused upon completing the assignment.

Hooray for them! If only the rest of us could perform so carefreely. But we are tangled in one or another conundrum. We fuss. We fear. We experience a more organic, subjective, surprising world; a messy universe glimpsed in shifting patterns of meaning and feeling and not so easily mastered. We, too, might hammer and nail and paint, but while struggling with deeper philosophical conundrums, leaving, if not a physical mess, at least some deeper meaning unresolved. Because we are not mechanical engineers. We are not any more or less human than mechanical engineers, but our humanity seems to play a more dominant role in our lives.

I’m merely describing temperaments. The decisive and the phlegmatic. The journalist and the poet. The realist and the dreamer. If mechanical engineers ruled the world, the dreamer might well be classified as unproductive rather than inventive. Placed on an assembly line, dreamers are dangerous, but wouldn’t immersing a realist in ambiguity produce similarly disjointed results?

One client described as an outright assault on intuitive thinkers by sensing doers the Bush administration’s attempt to reform via process improvements Los Alamos scientists’ proven generations-old practices. Physicists do not approach their work as a mechanical engineer might, and their methods seem inefficient and meandering in comparison to the straight-forward mechanics any engineer would employ. But the problems physicists pursue are different in class than those engineers resolve. They demand meandering, intuitive thoughtfulness, rather than active, predictive solution. They are not merely employing hammers, but inventing them.

The result? At Los Alamos, the assault yielded dramatic improvement in the productivity of the scientific investigation, not because the speed of scientific discovery was increased, but because a significant number of scientists choose to leave the Labs, reducing the overhead cost. What will this savings cost long term? No engineer could calculate this cost.

In Mark Frost’s novel The Second Objective, Nazi spies hold counterfeit passes to gain entry to Allied headquarters, but discover that “headquarters” is misspelled as “haedquarters” on their counterfeits. The Nazi spies produce replacement counterfeits to correct this error, only to learn later, after their intrusion is thwarted, that the genuine passes contained the misspelling. A French detective who helped crack the case comments about the Nazis, “They didn’t really make the trains run on time, either.” Their attention to the way it was supposed to be blinded them to the way it was.

And this kind of blindness is the very foundation of the mechanical engineer’s world view. Their certainty about how things should be, supported by rigorous scientific investigation, blinds them to the way things actually are. We can observe only the observable, and much of what dictates success in human endeavors remains tenaciously unobservable. We might decide that behavior can serve as a stand-in for all we cannot see, and conclude much based upon easily observable actions, and miss seeing the presumption this construction teeters atop. A house of cards.

If Mechanical Engineers ruled the world, we might find a world obsessed with measurement, one focused upon mechanical efficiency, and one improving meaningless as well as meaningful processes. This mysterious world would be characterized as ultimately predictable, and our economies would become roulette wheels rigged by a cruel fate. Our governments would be endlessly bailing out institutions grown so huge and essential that we cannot afford for them to fail, but ones which ultimately fail from focusing upon engineering clockworks to master organics. When they crumble, we find few guilty of any crime save those crimes classified as collusion, conspiracies created to contain natural messiness into predictable portfolios. We wonder how different these outcomes might have been had their energies been focused upon more fully acknowledging the way it is rather than enforcing the way it otta be.

Our survival might well depend upon us fighting this global movement toward Taylorism. In education as well as business, in government as well as industry, the mechanical mindset has gained significant credibility. And no wonder. It can, does, and has produced dramatic short-term improvements in the standard of living, as measured by income, capital, and wealth. But as the roller-coaster performance of our industries as well as our governments show, these improvements are short-lived. They boom then bust. They provide before producing privation. They are ultimately unsustainable.

So I declare today, September 11, a global war on Taylorism, a form of terrorism more terrifying than any suicide bomber might induce. A threat to civilization, to humanity, that is subtle, seductive, and ultimately suicidal. We know, or should know, the thin thread from which our viability dangles. The small God efficiency invokes. The slim salvation a monkey wrench, even one in the hands of the most skilled mechanical engineer, might provide. The ultimate cost of disqualifying—merely because their temperaments are not mechanical—three quarters of our citizens, of creating a counterfeit underclass of dreamers, poets, and innovators we punish for crimes against the machine.

Let this be a gentle engagement, inexorable. Fought not with the machines of war, but with the hearts and minds of thoughtful and caring people. One fueled by insight rather than hard rules of engagement. One informed by ethical responsibilities rather than by marching orders. Our goal cannot be to vanquish an enemy, but to encourage and nurture our own humanity. To appreciate differing gifts and build robust communities of otherwise individually inadequate individuals. To sustain rather than contain. To imagine rather than enforce. To build rather then destroy. To see science as something more than a metaphor for predictability, but as a method of genuine inquiry, one intended to generate more questions than answers, more insights than injunctions, and more sustainable humanity than mechanical precision.


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