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Develop Your People Patiently Rather Than Rely on Super Taylorism

by Rose Heathcote, Daryl Powell & Eivind Reke
January 11, 2021

Develop Your People Patiently Rather Than Rely on Super Taylorism

by Rose Heathcote, Daryl Powell & Eivind Reke
January 11, 2021 | Comments (13)

What was coined "Greater Taylorism" by Walter Kiechel in his 2012 book The Lords of Strategy has become such a normal part of doing business that we don't notice its existence nor question the results. However, it always ends in tragedy for the companies captivated by its allure of assured success. Follow the plan and you will succeed.

How we approach strategy matters if we care about the people who make up the fabric of organizations. Born as a method for cost-efficient production by separating the doing (willing workers) from the thinking (expert engineers), during the 1960s and '70s, Taylorism was deployed to the board room by the original strategy consultancies BCG and Bain & Company. The selling point was profit at a discount, and the method was standardized early on. The consultants would come in and do the analysis, create the implementation plan, and support its implementation. The aim was cost reduction by scale, and the outcome was short-term profits and long-term failure. The consultancy-driven strategy came alive when clever minds developed it into frameworks and products.

Later, a tipping point of global acceptance meant Super Taylorist strategies became the standard way of thinking and doing for C-suites for decades. Large organizations conformed and became disciples. Business schools taught it. The brightest young graduates were head-hunted and rewarded for it. One thing fuelled the next. A billion-dollar industry was born.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Toyota was developing a different approach to strategy, one based on technical learning on the gemba through trial and error--a process that aimed to serve all customers with a broad product line of high quality and at the right price. The economics underpinning their strategy was not economies of scale, which many early leaders had observed and rejected after visiting Ford's River Rouge complex. Instead of scale economies based on batching, Toyota developed capital-light production featuring just-in-time and profit margin through jidoka.

Toyota’s success hasn’t stopped new generations of consultancy businesses selling and re-selling the tried and tested formula. For every executive buyer on the lookout for alibi activities, there is a consulting firm looking for its next client. Every manager needs a project that will keep the organization busy with "change" work that changes nothing, at least not for the customers nor the employees. They bring in the consultants with their ready-made program and lots of work to do for all involved. Such alibi activities are great for postponing the real job of finding and facing technical issues that are troubling the customer. This is, in essence, the age-old discussion: Strategy as learning, or strategy as planning and execution. So, what is the difference, and does it really matter?

How we approach strategy matters if we care about the people who make up the fabric of organizations. What was sarcastically coined AFP (Another “Fine” Program) at Harley Davidson are usually cost-cutting programs, transformation- or implementation-programs rolled out at the end of the extensive and expensive analysis of markets, competitors, products, and processes--carried out by expert consultants. But what if executives instead invested as much money developing the organization so its people make better products every day? Instead of looking for cost reduction to scale with Super Taylorism, we should instead improve profitability by worrying about quality, involving all the people all the time.

The "Promise" of Cost Reduction

Cost reduction by scale comes in many different dressings, but the process is always based on the following steps:

  1. Carry out extensive interviews.
  2. Re-state what the company already knows, as specific issues with generic solutions (optimization, operational excellence, cost reduction, complexity reduction, culling products, and the like).
  3. Suggest an implementation plan with an arbitrary timeline, such as 100 days, to accomplish the generic solution's promise; usually with multiple consultants working full-time with client.
  4. When implemented, the argument goes, the company will have learned to do the work themselves (something that rarely happens, as adults don't learn much unless they do the work themselves).

The aim is to achieve profitability and competitiveness by leveraging economies of scale. It is appealing, and the pitch is often supported by success stories of other famous clients. However, it more often results in depleted resources andBy worrying about and improving quality, we are also reducing both the cost of our misconceptions and the real cost of our products--by developing our people.  impoverished competencies. When it goes sour because the real world is never as expected, the blame is dispersed elsewhere: People are resistant to change, there were unforeseen issues, changes in market conditions and customer demands, and so forth. Make no mistake, when the success stories of the consultancies fail (and it seems they always do in the end), Super Taylorism is to blame. One cannot separate the method from the outcome.

What is the Lean Alternative?

The lean way is to develop people by improving quality to improve revenue. By investigating quality, we discover our misconceptions and wrongful thinking. By addressing quality issues, we develop people, one problem at a time. The tools might look similar, but the approach is radically different. Instead of running through the 4Ds (Define and Decide through extensive analysis and grand planning, Drive the execution, and finally Deal with the unfortunate consequences,) we accept a different starting point, introduced in the book The Lean Strategy:

  1. Find the technical quality issues,
  2. Face the cost of our misconceptions,
  3. Frame the problem so that everyone can contribute, and,
  4. Form countermeasures and solutions from the ground up.

In the end, the outcome will be radically different.

Super Taylorism seeks ideas from the brightest sparks sitting among the upper-echelon of earners. Oversimplified, this means that only the ideas of the well-paid bosses matter. However, lean has taught us that all minds matter. Lean seeks equality, where all minds are created equal, and every contribution is valuable – not just the contributions of the elite few. Even if not all ideas are engaged, respect for people means we respect opinions, even if we don’t always agree. The collective learning and possibilities from many far outweigh the limited plans and executions from Taylorist gentry.

The Real Cost of Products

Consultants look for ways to reduce the cost-base by implementing best practices in the form of new methods or frameworks across the enterprise. These so-called best practices usually come in the form of layoffs, rigid processes, price pressure on suppliers, streamlining of product lines and so forth. Lean, on the other hand, looks at reducing the cost of misconceptions through a process of discovery and learning.  

The underlying equations that illustrates the different approaches can be summed up as:

  1. Profit = Sales Price – Real Cost
  2. Real Cost = Base Cost + Cost of Misconceptions.

Where Super Taylorism wants to reduce the base cost through economies of scale, lean looks at the product and forces us to ask some pretty fundamental questions: Where are our misconceptions? How can we reduce the cost of our misconceptions by better understanding each customer to better serve their needs? What are the technical production and engineering challenges we are working on today, and what are the challenges we are not even aware of?

Super Taylorism applied to an organization's core business has a drastic impact on the products or services delivered and leads to disastrous outcomes.Super Taylorism applied to an organization's core business has a drastic impact on the products or services delivered and leads to disastrous outcomes. The Volkswagen fuel gate scandal, Enron, and the existential crisis of GE are a few well-known examples that come to mind. It can be challenging to differentiate the tools and methods, but if you are planning to spend millions on external resources, chances are you are involved with some form of Super Taylorism - the separation of thinking and doing throughout the organization.

The lean approach is different: stop doing the silly things to free up the necessary resources needed to do the real job. Develop people with a thorough understanding of customers, markets, competitors, and product-lines. Learning is personal but mostly happens in teams. Therefore, from team leaders and operators up to the executive suite, everyone should have a personal learning project that develops the individual, the team and the organization. Yes, it's hard work, but this is also meaningful and real work, not soul-sapping alibi activities.

Super Taylorism or Lean?

The two roads appear similar, but don’t be fooled--there are significant differences. After all, consultants are very adept at the assimilation of new buzzwords, tools, and methods. However, the purpose of the activities is vastly different. As noted by Kiechel in his book, Super Taylorism pays relentless attention to the three Cs -- Cost, Customers and Competitors… particularly costs, by extensive analysis, recommendation and, over time, degradation. Cost reduction (and thus profit, according to this argument) is achieved through cheaper materials, price pressure on suppliers, cheaper labour costs and rigid standardization of processes. Lean starts with quality. By looking at technical quality issues in the product and the processes, we develop better people to make better products for more customers, increasing revenues. The paradox is that by worrying about and improving quality, we are also reducing both the cost of our misconceptions and the real cost of our products--by developing our people. Which road do you choose?

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13 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani January 11, 2021
2 People AGREE with this comment

It is truly dreadful to see how you incorrectly associate Frederick Winlsow Taylor's work with the misguided work of business leaders and consultants who misunderstood and misused Scientific Management. According to your construction, it would be entirely correct to name the existence of "Fake Lean" (CI with no RP) Super Womackism or Super Ohnoism. Were it not for Taylor and his team to develop industrial engineering, Ohno-san and his team would have had nothing to work with. Please see https://bobemiliani.com/love-for-ohno-hate-for-taylor/ ;

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michael January 11, 2021
8 People AGREE with this reply

Bob Emiliani: enough! Will you stop trying to highjack anything written to attract attention and divert the conversation towards your own writing - surely it's good enough to stand on its own merits and doesn't need such constant piggybacking!

There is no possible reconciliation for people who still defend Taylor and taylorism out of its historical context. We have a century's worth of damage done. And we also know that the managerial roots of lean are TWI and then TQM - neither born of taylorism.

Look where exploitative thinking has gotten us! And sure, all with vested interests in taylorism and MBAs can scream and shout foul - their legacy is clear enough. It's a new century, so far it is not starting well as the effects of exploitative management are now everywhere. Time to stand and be counted. Lead, follow, or get out of the way!

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Bob Emiliani January 11, 2021
2 People AGREE with this reply

Hi Michael - Enough? Yes, I agree. It really is so simple: The damage was not done by Taylor. The Scientific Management worked very well in companies that were fully committed to it (see, for example, Thompson, C. B. (1917), The Taylor System of Scientific Management). To attribute the damage to Taylor is terrible scholarship, factually incorrect, and deceptive to your readers. Business leaders and (most) consultants (e.g. Charles Bedaux) are responsible for the exploitative thinking then and now which corrupts progressive management (SM, Lean, and TPS). The new century is not starting out well? No kidding. The traditions of the past remain with us today. It would be great if you took an interest in that because therein lies the keys to moving forward with Lean and Toyota's management practice. And yes, you will find that in my writing.

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Shahrukh A Irani January 30, 2021

I am an Industrial Engineer and would guide all to focus more on the work of the Gilbreths than Taylor.  The latter's work promotes a "beat up the person doing the work" by forcing standard times that management develops for them.  In contrast, the Gilbreths' work promote more what seems to be core to the kaizen concept --- work WITH those doing the work to arrive at improved ways to do that work.  This way both the person doing the work and the person (the IE usually) tasked with telling that person doing the work how to improve their work are successful.  No more negative interaction between employee and management.  Instead of all these meaningless terms like Lean Strategy and Super Taylorism, maybe all of you need to go back and appreciate what Industrial Engineers do. :-)

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Vasco Duarte January 11, 2021
7 People AGREE with this comment

Great post! This article is also very valuable for Scrum Masters (a role in the IT process Scrum). As they are very often working with improvements at the team level, and sometimes forget that the separation between "thinkers" and "doers" is one of the problems that they are there to solve! 

Scrum Masters can be much more effective if they work together with the team, and help the team define and implement their own improvement ideas! 

I posted my take the Scrum Master Toolbox blog post so that other Scrum Masters can find it! Thanks for sharing! 

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Rose Heathcote January 11, 2021
8 People AGREE with this reply

Thank you, Vasco! It's a common affliction to separate the thinkers from the doers. What an incredible opportunity we have to capitalise on the minds of everyone to help in solving the problems. Instead of encouraging people to clock in and leave their brains at the door, we know that collective learning and improving is powerful stuff. We hope your Scrum Masters enjoy it. It's meant to get us all thinking about the decisions we make :). 

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Chip February 13, 2021


Love the article, how is your wine supply? and have you been wearing your cowgirl boots?

VT Friend

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Björn Svärd January 14, 2021

That is why I never really liked or like Scrum. The KI-Vp or "Visible Planning" is far more  team and people development oriented and therefor a superior method in my world. 

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Felipe Engineer-Manriquez January 11, 2021
8 People AGREE with this comment

I absolutely love how well this post articulated Super Taylorism. Thank you for contributing real wisdom to the current and future lean thinkers.

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Bob Emiliani January 11, 2021
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Felipe - Perhaps you will also like how well Taylor articulated Scientific Management  https://tinyurl.com/y35lap4x (pages 1377-1508).  

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Eivind January 12, 2021
2 People AGREE with this reply

Thank you for your kind comments Felipe. I'm really glad that you enjoyed the article. The difference in approaches is very real and choosing the path of people development is hard work, but also a lot of fun. Even now, we see states and nations outsource covid strategy to the "expert" thinkers with tragic consequences. That path is no fun for anyone.

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Michael January 12, 2021
10 People AGREE with this comment

Great piece! I've been reading the post on linkedin, which reminded me that when someone points at the moon, fools look at the finger, then argue about it TO STOP EVERYONE ELSE FROM LOOKING AT THE MOON.

Yes, Taylor died in 1915, yes he was brilliant and cranky and an innovator in his own time, and yes, he had a dismal view of workers - writing that they "soldier on" and yes he thought that an intelligent gorilla could be trained to do some jobs. Yes, Schmidt turned out to be a real person, and yes Taylor largely extrapolated from very few experiments, and then made his case in fair demonstrations - fine. He's long gone.

Ideas, however endure. Taylorism is like Freudism or Marxism, or indeed Ohnoism - the ideology, alive today, carried, prolonged and actively promoted by people working at it today, just as we, in lean, refer to Ohno, interpret his writings and stories about him and promote lean ideology.

Taylorist ideology, as you rightly point out, centers on the idea that an "external eye" can look at any business activity, study it dispassionately and rationalize it - because the people doing the job themselves can't have the objectivity to do it autonomously. This is the core trade of consultants (Taylor set up sjop as one of the very first consulting engineers), who claim they can have insights into a product range or a process without having to know it inside out.

The second part of Taylorism is piece rate incentives - the idea that if I improve productivity, I can get my cut of the improvement. With the dark side that if I can't follow the punishing rate, I might as well look for work elsewhere - which we know historically happened in Henry For'd version of Taylorism, and is still the basis for many executive compensation and consulting contracts.

This is a smart business, because the insights are easy to get, always catchy and interesting, and increase short term productivity by abandoning the difficult cases - consultants win, sponsor wins, the business is left poorer in the 2-3 year range.

Taylorism, as an ideology, and distinct from whatever the historical Taylor himself thought (his good intentions are not in doubt), is still very much alive today, being supported now by IT systems and software and at the heart of the 4.0 movement. It is very distinct from training - the dominant method of solving people problems up to the sixties, where people are taught new methods to solve their problems themselves. 

The shift from training (who, in this day and age, still sees it as a way to solve production problems?) to what you call Supertaylorism, has been radical and has created untold damage as we go to the gemba and see how weak foundation knowledge now is.

All the nitpicking about whether we should use terms like "supertaylorism" or whether today's taylorism reflects Frederick Taylor's original ideas and intentions are just noise to distract from the fundamental social issue you have absolutely nailed in you article. We have a problem, a bad one, the worm is in the apple, when executives think they will more handily solve their problems by calling consultants in rather than face their issues and train their people.

This is a fundamental message, it's wonderful to see how you've framed it, ignore the trolls defending their business model and keep going!

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Bob Emiliani January 12, 2021
2 People AGREE with this reply

The great points made in the post about developing people could have been made without using the perverse and inaccurate term "Super Taylorism," given that Taylor was the first to recognize the need to systematically develop people. Principle #2 of Scientific Management was " "scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman" (p. 36). Dr. Lillian Gilbreth's book Psychology of Management (https://tinyurl.com/yxwla6q5) provided deeper rationale of the importance of worker training and development.

I'm sure you and the authors of the post would find this paper very interesting with respect to the "external eye" that you talk about: "Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Idea of Worker Participation," Hindy Schachter, Administration and Society, Volume 21, No. 1, May 1989, pp. 20-30. 

Also, Michael Balle, you are incorrect to judge Taylor by today's standards of respect and worker pay. Taylor was progressive in his view of workers and worker compensation. His ideas were forerunner the human relation work of Mayo and Maslow. To better grasp Taylor and his work, read his testimony (under oath) to the U.S. Congress (https://tinyurl.com/y35lap4x, pages 1377-1508), and then you will realize that my criticism of "Super Taylorism" is not nitpicking. 

In reading the works I cited you and the authors of the post would realize the extent to which you oversimplify and mischaracterize Taylor and Scientific Management.

Finally, give Taylor and his colleagues the respect that they earned and deserve by not using use his name in a pejorative way. Lead with respect, right Michael?

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