Frederick W. Taylor: XXI Century Release

Any motivation expert, from time to time, devotes a part of his time to throw some stones to Frederick W. Taylor. It seems, from our present scope, that there are good reasons for the stoning: Strict splitting between planning and performing is against any idea considering human beings as something more than faulty mechanisms.

However, if we try to get the perspective that Taylor could have a century ago, things could change: Taylor made unqualified workers able to manufacture complex products. These products were far beyond the understanding capacity of those manufacturing them.

From that point of view, we could say that Taylor and his SWO meant a clear advance and Taylor cannot be dismissed with a high-level theoretical approach out of context.

Many things have happened since Taylor that could explain so different approach: The education of average worker, at least in advanced societies, grew in an amazing way. The strict division between design and performance could be plainly justified in Taylor time but it could be nonsense right now.

Technology, especially the information related, not only advanced. We could say that it was born during the second half of the past century, well after Taylor. Advances have been so fast that is hard finding a fix point or a context to evaluate its contribution: When something evolves so fast, it modifies the initial context and that removes the reference point required to evaluate the real value.

At the risk of being simplistic, we could say that technology gives us “If…Then” solutions. As technology power increases, situations that can be confronted through an “If…Then” solution are more and more complex. Some time ago, I received this splendid parody of a call-center that shows clearly what can happen if people work only with “If…Then” recipes, coming, in this case, from a screen:

Technology evolution again puts the worker -now with an education level far superior to the one available in Taylor age- in a role of performer of routines and instructions. We could ask why so old model is still used and we could find some answers:

  • Economics: Less qualified people using technology can perform more complex tasks. That means savings in training costs and makes turnover also cheaper since people are easier to replace.
  • Knowledge Ownership: People have a brain that can store knowledge. Regretfully, from the perspective of a company, they have also feet that can be used to bring the brain to other places. In other words, knowledge stored by persons is not owned by companies and, hence, they could prefer storing knowledge in processes and Information Systems managing them.
  • Functionality: People commit more mistakes, especially in these issues hard to convert into routines and required going beyond stored knowledge.

These points are true but, when things are seen that way, there is something clear: The relation between a company and people working there is strictly economical. Arie de Geus, in The living organization, said that the relation between a person and a company is economic but considering it ONLY economic is a big mistake.

Actually, using If…Then model as a way to make people expendable can be a way to guarantee a more relaxed present situation…at the price of questionning the future. Let’s see why:

  • If…Then recipes are supplied by a short number of suppliers working in every market and, of course, having clients who compete among them. Once reduced the human factor to the minimum…where is it going to be the difference among companies sharing the same Information Systems model?
  • If people are given stricly operative knowledge…how can we advance in this knowledge? Companies outsource their ability to create new knowledge that, again, remains in the hands of their suppliers of Information Systems and their ability to store more “If…Then” solutions.
  • What is the real capacity of the organization to manage unforeseen contingencies, if they have not been anticipated in the system design or, even worse, contingencies coming from the growing complexity of the system itself?

This is the overview. Taylorism without Taylor is much worse than the original model since it’s not justified by the context. Companies perform better and better some things that they already knew how to manage and, at the same time, it is harder and harder for them improving at things that previously were poorly performed. People, under this model, cannot work as an emergency resource. To do this, they need knowledge far beyond the operative level and capacity to operate without being very constrained by the system. Very often they miss both.

Jens Rasmussen, expert in Organization and Safety, gave a golden rule that, regretfully, is not met in many places: Operator has to be able to run cognitively the program that the system is performing. Features of present Information Systems could allow us working under sub-optimized environments: Instead of an internal logic that only the designer can understand -and not always- things running and keeping the Rasmussen rule would be very different.

The rationale about training and turnover costs would remain but advantages from ignoring it are too important to dismiss them. The sentence of De Geus is real and, furthermore, it has a very serious impact about how our organizations are going to be in the next future.




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