The Science of Management Revisited

How far have we come in 100 years?

In 1911, Frederick W. Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” (read it directly at that link for free, thanks to the Google scanning initiative).

It makes remarkable reading today.  Taylor’s proposition was simple.  We need to stop just looking for talented people, and better train and organize normal people.   Management is a science—the science of efficiency.  It applies to all jobs, and all who use it benefit.

Workers themselves are incapable—“stupid” is his preferred word—of understanding the scientific principles that maximize their efficiency.  Ditto even for initiative.  The job of management is to define people’s jobs in extraordinary detail, and to provide initiative. 

“Workmen will not submit to this more rigid standardization and will not work extra hard, unless they receive extra pay for doing it… management must inform [the worker] at frequent intervals as to the progress he is making, so that hey may not unintentionally fall off in his pace…the workman alone even with full knowledge of the new methods and with the best of intentions could not attain these startling results.”

“The average workman must be able to measure what he has accomplished and clearly see his rewards at the end of each day if he is to do his best…cooperation or “profit-sharing”…have been at the best only mildly effective in stimulating men to work hard.  The nice time which they are sure to have today if they take things easily and go slowly proves more attractive than steady hard work with a possible reward to be shared with others six months later.”

Taylor is most famous for his remarkably detailed time and motion studies of activities like shoveling coal and transporting pig iron to a rail car.   It’s easy to read Taylor as quaint.  To the objection that measuring coal-shovelers and pig-iron handlers is irrelevant to advanced workers, Taylor responds with—time and motion studies of lathe-cutters. 

But in fact, Taylor is very much with us today.

A recent emailing from Harvard Business School Publishing headlines, “If You’re Not Measuring Marketing, You’re Not Marketing.” 
It advertises a CD-ROM on Measuring Marketing Performance that tells you “how to create a marketing dashboard that can reveal the true performance of the company’s marketing activities. The dashboard can be used to inform boards of directors and senior leaders as to how well their marketing efforts are supporting customers’ needs.” 

The only thing Taylor would argue with is whether the shovelers are intelligent enough to provide the data on shoveling with which they are to be measured.  

The ubiquity of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (see here, or here, or here),while transparently false and based on a misreading of Taylor, is testimony to the pervasiveness of his influence.
What we have taken—and kept—from Taylor is a passion for breaking things down into tiny tasks, measured in tiny units of time.  Technology and process engineering have enabled us to extend this philosophy to unprecedented levels.  We have come to believe that basically all management is a variation on workflow design—if we measure precisely enough, and mete out just the right carrots and sticks, we will produce a perpetual motion/money machine. 

It is easy to caricature Frederick Taylor, despite the ways in which we continue to emulate him.  But he was wise in ways we have conveniently forgotten.  The "management equals measurement" people treat measurement as both necessary and sufficient; Taylor only argued the former.

“The mechanism of management must not be mistaken for its essence, or underlying philosophy…when elements of this mechanism, such as time study, are used without being accompanied by the true philosophy of management, the results are in many cases disastrous….the really great problem involved in a change from the management of “initiative and incentive” to scientific management consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all those engaged in the management, as well also the workman…this change…is a matter of from two to three years, and in some cases it requires from four to five years."

Plus ca change…