S01E02 How one man created the single most influential doctrine in the history of organization
Taylorism or the application of clockwork logic to corporations, how the soviets drew from scientific management
Last week I wrote that managerialism is rooted in modernity. I also painted the broad strokes of the clockwork worldview that comes with modernist thinking. In this episode, I explore what this all means for how we approach organization.
S01E02 How Frederick Taylor changed the world
In the Gilded Age of the United States, Frederick Winslow Taylor applied the clockwork logic of reductionism and determinism to the booming industrial activity. As the first person to methodically study the work process, Taylor founded the theory of scientific management and had an inordinate impact on how we think about organization. His theory spread like wildfire through the corporations of that time.
Taylor’s theory builds on the assumption that there is “one best way” to do something. In fact; The One Best Way was the title of Taylor’s biography. By applying the scientific method to industrial production processes, managers look for the optimal approach for each work process and shape the workflow accordingly. Taylor himself would conduct innumerable experiments on even the smallest components of the production process: the distance between the workers and their tools, the layout of factory rooms, the ideal speed for conveyor belts, etc...
Armed with a stopwatch and a ledger, Taylor was the corporate embodiment of the clockwork universe. By analyzing every component, scientific management could determine a best practice for every step of the way. These small efficiency wins left right and center resulted in enormous gains when applied at an industrial scale.
Taylor’s principles are ultimately grounded in the separation of thinking and doing. Managers analyze and plan, allowing workers to execute their assigned tasks at maximum efficiency. Needless to say, these methods were not popular with skilled workers, who were reduced to mindless cogs in a machine. A highly-skilled workforce was no longer a competitive advantage. Almost everybody who could hold a wrench was able to learn the best practices, as scripted by professional managers.
This evolution put downward pressure on wages as it made workers easy to replace, which added to the growing power of corporations. Nevertheless, the business results were undeniable, and Taylor’s ideas gained an enormous following. Scientific management spread from blue-collar to white-collar workers, and from private organizations to the government. No domain or industry stayed out of Taylor’s reach. As Taylor himself wrote:
“The same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities; to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our government departments.”
— Frederick Taylor, The principles of scientific management
Remember, this is still the apex of Modernity. In the early 20th century, confidence in the elites and in institutions was on the rise, and our great-grandparent’s hearts and minds were receptive to the promises of Scientific Management. It’s hard to overstate Taylorism’s popularity; his manifesto was voted the most influential management book of the 20th Century by the Academy of Management in 2001.
Perhaps even more telling, is how his ideas were adopted by the rest of the world. The beginning of the 20th century saw the United States rise as a global economic power. America’s industrial successes - the airplane, the automobile, the radio, and the telephone to name just a few American inventions - had not gone unnoticed in the Old World.
Europe’s leaders were eager to achieve the same success and carefully studied the American recipes. One unlikely follower of the Taylorist doctrine was Vladimir Lenin. From a 1918 speech:
“The possibility of building socialism will be determined precisely by our success in combining the Soviet government and the Soviet organization of administration with the modern achievements of capitalism. We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our purposes.”
— Vladimir Lenin
History taught us that Lenin and the Soviets imitated the wrong pattern. Instead of a free market economy, they copied Taylorism and Fordism. Lenin’s cooptation of Scientific Management wasn’t a huge ideologic stretch; the idea of treating workers as parts of a machine fits surprisingly well in a collectivistic approach to governance.
In the next episode, I explore how the world evolved to a point where the Taylorist approach would prove counterproductive.
Stanley A. McChrystal, Team of teams
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