Is this any way to run a railroad?

  |   future Print Friendly and PDF

Frederick Taylor was late to the party. Taylor and his “scientific management” get credit for creating many of the management practices that we call “traditional” or “command and control.” But the roots of the modern corporation and those “traditional” practices date to more than a half century before Taylor.

Most of our “traditional” management practices appeared first in the railroads. If you understand why, you can do a better job of determining what management practices we need here in the 21st Century.

The railroads started with a clean sheet of paper simply because there had been nothing like them before. They invented standard time, because no one on a horse or ship had ever travelled faster than the sun before. They standardized several technologies including locomotives and their component parts, tracks, ties, specialized railcars, and construction details such as grading, bridging, and tunneling.

The railroads faced two big problems. Many of the things that had to do were new and had never been done before. Mistakes could be costly in dollars and lives.

As a result, the railroads developed a management system based on tight centralized control and strict adherence to formal procedures. One railroad manual of the times stated that: “A perfect familiarity with the following rules . . . will be expected of all employees . . . and an ignorance of their requirements will never be received as an excuse for not obeying them.”

That control and those procedures were carried out by the first professional managers, who could work their way up in the hierarchy and achieve increasing authority. You succeeded in that world by following rules, not by doing much thinking for yourself, at least not on railroad time.

In 1853, the Erie Railroad promoted Daniel McCallum from superintendent of one of the railroad’s operations to general superintendent. In addition to doing a great job for Erie’s owners, McCallum did two things that still inform the way we work today.

He created one of the first organizational charts as a way to visualize the railroad’s organization. You can see an image of his original chart in a marvelous McKinsey article by Caitlin Rosenthal titled “Big data in the age of the telegraph.” I love it that the Board of Directors is at the bottom of the chart.

McCallum also outlined six basic principles of general administration. As far as I know this is the first stab at a theory of what makes good management.

If you want to develop a way of leading or managing or supervising that will succeed in the 21st Century, it probably won’t happen if you simply try to adapt what we’ve been doing for a century or more. Instead do what the railroads did.

Start with a clean sheet of paper. Figure out what challenges you face. Then figure out the best way to meet them.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Finding a new best way to work won’t be easy. You’re going to have to try a lot of things to find and adapt the things that work.

Your Turn

What challenges do we need to meet in the 21st Century? What should we do to meet them successfully?

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet, why not be the first to leave a comment?