Can People Really Change? Part IV: On the Shoulders of Giants Can People Really Change?

Frederick Taylor, the First Modern ‘Change’

Following the Civil War in America (1861-1965), industrialization went rampant. Large factories started dotting the landscape where farms had stood before. Machines, the exciting new technology, were promising to make business owners wealthier than ever—if only they could ‘get those lazy and greedy front line workers to use those machines to their maximum potential’. Over time, an ever widening gulf appeared between the wealthy business owners who wanted more productivity and the disgruntled and exhausted workers who were doing the work. One outcome of this push/pull was the growth of unions, which aimed to provide leverage for protecting front-line employees from turning into essentially slaves-with-a-paycheck. 

It was inside of this social cauldron that Frederick Taylor (born April, 1856, died March, 1915) developed and implemented the first truly systematic and scientific approach to resolving workplace production problems.

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No one in our long chain of ancestors in the field of changing people and their human systems is as controversial as Taylor. Many see him as the first well-known hard-hearted efficiency expert-with-a-stopwatch, whose goal was to increase the efficiency of a factory by re-making every employee into the exact image of the perfect worker who could do a specific task the fastest and the best. To accomplish this, Taylor laid out four fundamental Principles of ‘Scientific Management’ (a 1911 term he used after Supreme Court Justice Brandeis coined it in a 1910 railroad court case). Management should:

  1. Replace much-used ‘rules of thumb’ methods of doing a job with principles based on the scientific study of the tasks involved. 
  2. Select employees scientifically, based on specific job requirements and train them intentionally, rather than letting them train themselves or just hoping they learn how to do what they need to do. 
  3. Develop and provide detailed instructions for each task and supervise (measure) them in their performance. 
  4. Create an equal division of labor between themselves and front-line employees, with managers applying the principles of scientific management to workers who do the work.

Unlike the majority of change artists today who pursue their field via graduate school, Taylor spurned a scholarship to Harvard Law School (his eyesight was poor and he didn’t want to be embarrassed in court) to become an apprentice pattern maker and machinist! He started at the bottom and after finishing his four-year apprenticeship, started working at a steel plant, where he made his way up through the ranks from Gang-Boss over the lathe workers, Machine Shop Foreman, and eventually Chief Engineer. Taylor’s first-hand experience on the shop floor showed him that few, if any, workers were putting out as much as they were capable of and he set out to do something about that. Through a correspondence course (!), he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and created a consulting firm with business cards that read:

Frederick Taylor 

One story used to underscore the image of Taylor as a productivity obsessed management ally: during one of his engagements with a coal company he searched among the workers for the fastest pig iron shoveler, and found him in a man named Schmidt. Taylor and his team of consultants studied Schmidt to find out how he was able to shovel more pig iron than anyone else. They analyzed everything they could about him: 

  • The shape, weight, capacity, and design of the shovel he was using. 
  • The number of shovel loads he was moving per minute. 
  • His technique—how he held the shovel, moved his body and swung the load.
  • How he structured his work and rest periods during a typical day.

What they found surprised management and a few people following the study. One example: Schmidt’s arms were free of any load 57% of the day. Far from being the driving, efficiency-at-any-cost, push workers to their limits person, Taylor was focused on making work easier, not harder. In fact, according to one Taylor biographer, Schmidt jogged to and from work each day for two months, and built a house in his spare time! 

It is easy, however, to see how history has missed Taylor’s ‘human’ side and seen him as a friend of management, driven to squeeze every possible ounce of energy from every worker. Taylor figured out that processes could be made more efficient 

by breaking things down into discrete tasks, with each worker becoming an expert on one of those tasks. This approach of breaking a work flow into pieces still rules in some production facilities, but, as you will see later, it leads to a ‘thicker’ and ‘wider’ workforce which, given today’s wage structure, is untenable. The other inherent problem with Taylor’s approach is quality: with everyone along the way only responsible for their single piece of the process, who ‘owns’ the final product?! 

But few people realize that Taylor was the father of matrix management, seeing the need for certain specialties that would support the entire production line process. He usually instituted an incentive wage system, which paid the person, not the job. He was in many ways the champion of the front line worker, seeking to instill greater labor-management cooperation to solve problems. Taylor believed that respect in the workplace should be based on knowledge and performance, not position, and, believe it or not, Taylor was the one who championed ‘servant leadership’ among supervisors. As Marvin Weisbord points out in Productive Workplaces, his wonderful book about all this, unbeknownst to many people in the field of leadership and change, Taylor’s overriding objective was productive labor-management cooperation, not simply time-and-motion efficiency. 

Taylor’s thinking dramatically shaped the world’s workplace and its leaders in the early 1900s and continues to shape them—and our work—today. But his undoing came as a result of his absolutist beliefs in a) maintaining tight personal control of his interventions to ensure implementation of changes, and b) piecework— breaking down tasks into their simplest ‘chunks’ and requiring a single person to do a single task. 

 It was left to our next change artist ancestor, Kurt Lewin, to discover an even better way to discover good ideas for work improvement, and get people to actually follow through with them. Lewin’s approach meant, however, letting go of control and trusting the people themselves to figure out—with some support and 

guidance—what to do. Stay tuned next time for more on Lewin and the extraordinary debt we owe him!

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