Frederick Taylor

Let’s talk for a second about Frederick Taylor, father of Scientific Management. It’s rather remarkable how well he is able to describe the positive human conditions of a healthy work environment, a century before our time.

”Now, in the best of the ordinary types of management, the managers recognize frankly that the workmen who are under them possess a mass of traditional knowledge most of which is not within the possession of the management. The most experienced managers frankly place before their workmen the problem of doing the work in the best and most economical way. They recognize the task before them as that of inducing each workman to use his best endeavors, his hardest work, all his traditional knowledge, his skill, his ingenuity, and his good will, in a word, his initiative, so as to yield the largest possible return to his employer”

Frederick Taylor

Although the above is a little scientifically cold, it speaks to how craftsmanship empowers the individual. It even hints at this craftsmanship potentially being a way to elevate the worker, and enhance the human spirit.

There is one issue: This was what Taylor diagnosed as the problem.

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”

To achieve the efficiency in manufacturing he desired, there was no room for this kind of craftsmanship. Instead he devised a new methodology, whose playbook is best summarized here.

  1. disassociation of the labor process from the skills of workers
  2. separation of conception from execution
  3. use of monopoly power over knowledge to control each step of the labor process and its mode of execution

Harry Braverman (A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists)

For me at least, the above is hard to digest. On one hand this approach was arguably critical to the miracles of medicine, science, and technology we saw in the 20th century. On the other, this separation between individuals and their work still seems pervasive in almost every corner of the modern world.

We feel fundamentally disenfranchised when we lack ownership over our work, or the work fails to provide any creativity. When we see ourselves only as a cog in the machine, we deeply feel it. There is strong psychological damage here which we rarely recognize, have perhaps come to see as normal, or somehow expect more money to fix.

To make it harder, it’s easier to imagine an end to Taylorism than to imagine what would come after. What would a Utopia here ever practically look like? Would we have to lose all that efficiency and progress? Or is there just something in the middle?

Post Taylorism

One thing I try to take comfort in is that Frederick Taylor was just one man, and yet had this huge, complicated impact on society. If it hadn’t been Frederick Taylor, it seems like it would have been someone else putting forward the same ideas. But at one time this way of thinking was not the norm, and instead the avant-garde. If we as a society have changed out thinking here before, I would hope we could do it again. Only this time, hopefully trying to optimize more enlightened ideals than economic efficiency.

To me the most surprising part of learning about Frederick Taylor was understanding just how much of a playbook he had while implementing his ideas. So what if we sought principles of humanistic management? Could it really be as easy as flipping Taylor’s initial principles on their head?

1. Unify the labor process with the skills of the workers

2. Unite concept and execution

3. Democratize knowledge to maximize individual’s authority in labor processes

The above is surprisingly coherent as a set of guiding principles. Certainly not an exhaustive list, but a good start. This list also fails if it remains only theoretical. The challenge becomes figuring out how to mindfully apply them in our day to day.