Learning from Frederick Winslow Taylor

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Before Frederick Winslow Taylor, no one had really thought about studying work. He was the first to do that, applying observation and measurement to something that had never been studied before. The results were extraordinary.

In his lifetime, organizations that used his principles dramatically outperformed other organizations. Not only that, Taylor’s “scientific management” principles were one of the main drivers of an astounding, more than fivefold increase in US manufacturing output per labor hour between 1890 and 1958.

So, why do so many people pronounce his name with a sneer? Why are terms like “Taylorism” and “Tayloresque” pejorative? Answering those questions provides some lessons for all of us.

We Are All Captives of Our Time and Culture

Taylor was a man of the 19th Century, born before the US Civil War. The world he grew up in influenced what became his assumptions.

One common belief was that there were superior people, meaning superior in general, not just better chess players, say. Those superior people were the ones who were supposed to run things.

Those beliefs were strong at the turn of the Twentieth Century, but we have remnants of them today. You can hear echoes of “superior people” beliefs in our discussions of talent and leadership, where we avoid almost all discussion of the situational nature of success.

For Taylor, managers were superior people. He never questioned the belief that the managers or the fellows with the stopwatches were supposed to think things through for the workers and that the workers should simply do as they were told.

Taylor’s idea was that the work of every laborer should be fully planned out by management at least one day in advance. Workers received specific instructions about how they were to do everything.

We might not have the same assumptions that Frederick Winslow Taylor did, but our experience and the culture that formed us lead us to make unquestioned assumptions that guide our decisions.

The Way You Define Your Problem Determines the Kind of Solution You Get

Taylor started out to solve a problem of inefficiency. He studied processes by breaking them up into small bits and then trying to optimize each one. The result was that he never took a step back to look at the entire operation or the relationship between workers and their managers.

We do that kind of thing a lot. Instead of doing the hard work of defining the current situation and how we want it to be different, we pluck a definition off our mental shelf. Label a situation as a “marketing problem” and you hunt for marketing solutions. Label it as a “talent problem” or a “strategy problem” and you search for different solutions.

The Models You Use Matter

For Taylor, as for many of the people of his time, the machine was the big thing. World’s Fairs displayed new machinery. The engineers who designed the machines were idolized. It was natural for Taylor to think of an organization as a machine. And the workers? The workers were cogs in the machine.

It took almost 100 years before we started considering different models for our organizations. Somewhere around the 1980s, people started thinking of organizations as biological organisms. Biological organisms are more complex than machines and they are also alive. When you use a biological model for an organization, you start thinking of workers as being alive and contributing parts of the whole.

The Beat Goes On

Taylor got a lot right that no one before him had ever even thought about, but he got a lot wrong, too. He also missed a lot that other researchers would investigate later.

Because he concentrated strictly on the work, he completely ignored the relationship of the workers and management. Because he assumed that workers were incapable of thinking and inclined to be lazy, he never thought about the contributions they could make. Because he was only concerned with increasing prosperity in a financial sense, he never thought about things we might classify as “quality of life.”

We like to solve problems and seize opportunities as if what we do will be the final, complete answer or solution. Reality doesn’t allow that, however. There are always unintended consequences that create new problems. Other people, in other situations, have insights we never thought of and the seeds of the next problem nestle inside every new solution.

Reading Recommendations

Under New Management by David Burkus

Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency by Robert Kanigel

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