“The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong” by Matthew Stewart: The real mistake of Taylor

Many books start with a promise that starts to fade once read a few pages. “The Management Myth” is just the opposite: It starts with common knowledge about how consulting firms work to go into the roots of the problem and the author puts those roots in…Taylor.

For many of us, Taylor is interesting mainly for historic reasons about how organizations evolved. Taylor has been strongly critiziced because of his hard-nosed approach but nobody spoke about his results. Taylor’s results seemed to be right but through the wrong way. In other words, criticism to Taylor has been based in his “The goal justifies the means” practice. Nobody has never -at least, as far as I know- questionned if the goal was really reached or everything was a carefully crafted myth.

Taylor, the father of the so-called “Scientific Organization of Work” started his successful career in Bethlehem with workers moving pig-iron bars. He reported a big increase in productivity from the application of strict scientific principles and -this is the most important part- this principles could be applied to any organization in any activity. The idea of common principles shared by all business activities and scientific methodology to deal with these activities should be the starting point of Business Schools.

Perhaps, the supposition that pig-iron moving is a kind of micro-world whose principles are valid to every single business activity could be discussed. The most common discussion never reached this point but remained fixed in the social model that Taylor model could imply. Stewart in his book goes beyond: He shows data alleging that the Bethlehem works were not so successful as Taylor pretended; the methods were not as scientific as Taylor alleged and the big one: Profits coming from Taylor improvements were directly to the pockets of Taylor since they were by far minor than his consultancy bill for the project.

The book has some parts to be discussed. For instance, the author says that a scientific attitude does not imply the existence of a scientific field and, from this point of view, he rejects the possibility of speaking about something as a science of management. The first point is true but the conclusion could be wrong: Management is a continuously evolving activity and complex enough to justify the existence of some general principles. If these principles have to be called science or technique, that should be a minor point. Business Management is a discipline in itself and pretending to be “scientific” could be a way to escape from his findings to be discussed but this attitude itself -the one that Taylor showed- cannot be named scientific.

Science means open discussion and information enough to reproduce the alleged findings. Taylor did not meet any of these conditions in his work and that is the main objection that can be made. Stewart goes beyond: He shows how some of the problems of management today have their roots in Taylor ideas: Underinvestment, strict labor división, simplistic indicators and so on.

In a moment where Taylor appears again under the shape of Information Technology , the approach of Stewart can be especially relevant, even if we disagree about the role of Business Management as a discipline.

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