Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the decline and resurrection of Taylorism

with 8 comments

Introduction

A couple of years ago  Paul Culmsee and I wrote a post on the cyclical decay and recurrence of certain management concepts. The article describes how ideas and practices bubble up into mainstream management awareness and then fade away after the fad passes…only to recur in a morphed form some years later.

It recently occurred to me that this cycle of decay and recurrence is not restricted to good ideas or practices: ideas that, quite frankly, ought to remain consigned to the dustbin of management can also recur. Moreover, they may even do better the second time around because the conditions are right for them to flourish.  In this post I discuss  how the notion of scientific management, often referred to as Taylorism, after its founder Fredrick Winslow Taylor, has ebbed and flowed in the century or so since it was first proposed.

Taylorism and its  alleged demise

The essence of Taylorism  is summarised nicely in this quote from Taylor’s monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management:

This paper has been written…to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management  are applicable to all human activities, from our simplest individual activities to the work of great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding…

According to standard storyline of management, Taylorism had its heyday in the first few decades of the 20th century and faded away after the notion of the worker as an individual emerged in 1920s.  In his wonderful paper, Understanding Taylorism, Craig Littler summarises this mainstream view as follows:

From 1900-20 Taylorism provided the dominant ideas about the worker and worker motivation. But money was not enough and  ‘a great new ideas was taking root. The view of the worker as an individual personality emerged strongly around 1920 to command the stage.’ From 1920-1940 the worker was seen as a psychological complex, but then ‘Psychological Man’ (sic) faltered and sociology entered industry: Man (sic) had neighbours!

In short, the official story is that Taylorism was declared dead, if not quite interred, some ninety years ago.

But as we shall see, its ghost still haunts the hallways of the modern, knowledge-based corporation…

The ghost of Taylorism

The standard storyline views Taylorism as a management ideology – a set of ideas that guide management practice.  However, as Littler tells us, it is more instructive to see it primarily as a means of organizing work, in other words as a management practice. As Littler tells us,

If we look at Taylorism as a form of work organization then we can proceed to analyse it in terms of three general categories: the division of labour, the structure of control over task performance, and the implicit employment relationship.

To elaborate: Taylorism emphasised a scientific approach to enhancing worker productivity through things such as time and motion studies. In practice this lead to a  rigid fragmentation and division of labour coupled with time/effort measurements that enabled top-down planning. Although these efforts were focused on increasing production by improving worker efficiency, they also had the effect of centralising control over task performance and skewing the  terms of employment in management’s favour.

…and its new avatar

Even from this brief summary one can see how Taylorism sneaks into the modern workplace. As Martha Crowley and her co-workers state in the abstract to this paper:

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen an erosion of job security in both manual and professional occupation…employee involvement schemes in manual production and the growth of temporary employment, outsourcing and project-based teams in the professions have influenced working conditions in both settings…these practices represent not a departure from scientific management, as is often presumed, but rather the adoption of Taylorist principles that were not fully manifested in the era of mass production.

Indeed, there is a term, Neo-Taylorism, that describes this newly resurrected avatar of this old ideology.

The resurrection of Taylorism is in no small part due to advances in technology. This is indeed an irony because the very technology that gives us “cognitive surplus” (if one believes what some folks tell us) and enables us to inform the world  about “what we are doing right now” also makes it possible for us to be monitored at the workplace in real time.  A stark manifestation of this the call centre  – which Phil Tailor and  Peter Bain refer to  as an electronic panopticon and, in a later paper an assembly line in the head.

Of course, one does not need to work in a call centre to see Neo-Taylorism at work;  the central ideas of scientific management permeate many modern workplaces.    The standard HR cycle of goal-setting, review and performance evaluation, familiar to most folks who work in organisation-land,  is but a means of evaluating and/or ranking employees with a view to determining an appropriate reward or punishment. This often does more harm than good as is highlighted in David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process: there is nothing more effective than the threat of termination to ensure a compliant workforce…but engendering team spirit and high performance is another matter altogether.

Concluding remarks

To conclude: the resurrection of Taylorism is no surprise. For  although it may have become an unfashionable ideology in the latter part of the first half of the 20th century, its practices and, in particular, the forms of work organisation embodied in it live on.  This is true not just in industry but also in the academic world. Indeed, some of the research done in industrial engineering departments the world over serves to burnish and propagate Taylor’s legacy. Taylorism as an ideology may be dead, but as a management practice it lives on and flourishes.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to  Greg Lloyd for his pointer to David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process.

Written by K

August 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Interesting post Kailash. Apart from acquiring a new word (panopticon) it really made me thinking. I had some reservations about the notion that we are, yet again, governed by time-and-motion practices but, having read your post in its entirety has actually made my defenses useless. While we don’t call it Taylorism anymore, the practical implications of our surrounding do smell and feel as if it actually is.

    Like

    Shim Marom

    August 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

    • Hi Shim,

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right: Taylorism has sneaked again in without much fanfare at all. Most of the debates about it seem to go on in academia and research journals, rarely spilling over into the professional sphere.

      The panopticon is an interesting concept (in a seriously creepy way). As David mentions in his comment below, it is a design for a prison in which every prisoner can be watched by the warders all the time. The Wikipedia article linked to in the post has an illustration of one possible plan.

      Incidentally, Michel Foucault has written about panopticism in his book Discipline and Punish. If you’re interested, the relevant chapter is available here.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      August 29, 2013 at 9:35 pm

  2. As I was reading your post, I was thinking of Deming’s epigramatic rules of management; particularly ‘drive out fear’. The ranking approach as per the Microsoft story ‘drives in fear’. So by what insane logic does an employer want a fearful workforce? Clearly one that has taken the shareholders’ interests to the compost bin.
    The factor at work, I believe, is that people love power, and the more sociopathic they are, the more they will let this love destroy the people they in fact need to rely on. Further, it is a failure to acknowledge that workers, just like shareholders, invest in a corporation, and should be treated like shareholders should be treated….unhappy workers….unhappy customers….unhappy shareholders….unhappy management. The links are obvious.

    BTW a panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham where warders could easily watch the prisoners.

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    David

    August 29, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and for your trenchant remarks. I agree entirely.

      A parenthetical comment I would make is that, in addition to power, this kind of behaviour is sometimes driven by short-termism – i,.e. chasing short term gains at the cost of longer term sustainability. In these cases the focus is on how to do well this year or the next rather than planning for the longer term. Ironically, those who do this often claim to be doing so because they have the shareholders’ interests at heart.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      August 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm

  3. […] school and others who followed, this trend continues to dominate management practice, arguably even more so in recent years. The Haighmoor innovation described above was one of the earliest demonstrations that there is a […]

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  4. […] and blogger Kailash Awati wrote a compelling post where he makes the case that Taylorism is indeed alive and even thriving. He refers to it as […]

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  5. Hi Kailash,

    I wonder if you have read the “precariat” by Guy Standing. Your post reminds me of that. A chilling read, it was.

    Liked by 1 person

    Paritosh

    May 28, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    • Hi Paritosh,

      No I haven’t – thank you for the recommendation!

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      May 28, 2015 at 8:47 pm


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