Unlearning from Frederick Winslow Taylor

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In my presentation “No More Rules!” – which earned me a few heartwarming reviews up till now (Still waiting for yours!) – I claim that the use of too many rules in management today is harmful in many ways and that we need to revamp our thinking about their use and efficiency because in aggregation they might create more harm than good.

One issues I talk briefly about in the presentation is the fact that the basic assumptions about the use of rules comes from the thinking of Frederick Winslow Taylor whose work and book The Principles of Scientific Management revolutionized American industry leading it to new levels of efficiency and productivity. In the last few days, while reading 12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James Harter, I found two very interesting references to the Taylor’s work that amplify the normative argument I try to make in the presentation.

The first is a direct quote from Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management:

The development of a science (of managing tasks) involves the establishment of many rules, laws and formulae which replace the judgment of the individual workman and which can be effectively used only after having been systemically recorded, indexed, etc.”.

The second quote is from Taylor biographer Robert Kanigel who wrote in the book The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (Sloan Technology):

Scientific management was degrading. In reducing work to instructions and rules, it took away your knowledge and skill. In standing over you with a stopwatch, peering at you, measuring you, rating you, it treated you like a side of beef. You weren’t supposed to think. Whatever workmanly pride you might once have possessed must be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, your role only to execute the will of other men paid to think for you. You were a drone, fit only for taking orders. Scientific management, then, worked people with scant regard not only for the limitations of their bodies but for the capacity of their minds.

I don’t know about you, but the fact that this kind of approach is at the base of many of the achievements of the 20th century makes me feel a little bit ashamed. Notwithstanding the fact that today’s competitive advantage does not stem anymore from productivity and efficiency (which can be replicated easily) but from innovative thinking, Art and practical wisdom, this kind of approach seems inhuman and unsustainable. And still, in the number of times I encountered Taylor in my academic education, his approach was treated with respect and as a basis for modern thinking.

History is filled with individuals that, sometimes for noble reasons, led different disciplines in the wrong way. I do not think Taylor was a bad man. He probably believed he was working for the general good. However, the long-term damage his thinking produced is felt today and probably will be felt in the future. His assumptions are so intertwined into our thinking that it is hard to identify their exact influence. It is time to let go of our Tayloristic heritage and start celebrating the capacity of human minds. History will judge us on how well we learned from Taylor’s mistakes and how fierce we were in our approach to change it.

The change begins with you. What are you doing for it?

Elad

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2 Responses to “Unlearning from Frederick Winslow Taylor”

  1. Jack Uldrich Says:

    Excellent points! I’d couldn’t agree more.

    P.S. You might enjoy this picture about unlearning rules: http://www.unlearning101.com/fuhgetaboutit_the_art_of_/2009/05/unlearn-the-rules.html

    I also invite you to visit my website on unlearning at http://www.unlearning101.com.

    Cheers,

    Jack Uldrich

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Jack!
    Nice picture!
    Hope to hear more of your comments!
    Cheers,
    Elad


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