For some reason lately, Taylorism has been coming up in conversation. Perhaps because the quantified and systematic workflows are considered the opposite of agile processes or just because scientific management has so dominated American management theory in the last century. Either way, like “The Origin of Species”, most people have heard of “The Principles of Scientific Management” and few have actually read it. Taylor, like all of us, was a product of his times.  One of the things you have to continually put aside when reading it is the classism and elitist attitudes that were pervasive at the time.  Once you get past that, you can start to see what Taylor meant about scientific management instead of what everyone “knows” about it.

Usually, when you think about Taylorism, the main idea is that management is trying to reduce the skill of the job and treats people as mindless emotionless cogs in the machine of production. What I found when reading the book as almost exactly the opposite. One of the passages that I found most interesting was right at the beginning of the book:

The principle object of scientific management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.

The rest of the first chapter is explaining what and why this should be the case.  Essentially, it boils down to the concept that if you expect a lot of work, you should be willing to pay accordingly. About half the book was focused on the well being of the employee, and managing the workers. It was enlightening to see the 19th century attitude towards workers and how their “betters” had a responsibility to the workers in their factory. 

Two Way Loyalty

One of the interesting themes in the book was the idea of two way loyalty, that the workers should be responsible to the company and the company should be responsible for the workers. Some of this came out in the idea of needing to pay significantly more for people willing to do a  lot of work,  but this also came out in the idea that the management had a responsibility for the betterment of the workers. Although, usually expressed in the more condescending terms about needing to look out for the welfare of the less intelligent workers.

Separating Planning from Execution

One of the key concepts of Taylorism was the idea of separating planning from execution. When we hear about this, all we really hear is that you have the planners off in a room and the workers actually doing the work that the planners tell them to. We focus on the idea of them being different jobs.  Although, this isn’t really that different from most agile processes, we have a separate planning and execution.  Granted, it’s usually the same people doing both, but sprint and release planning is something separate from the execution and it usually takes place in a separate room. The key concept that I took out of that was that you should always be thinking about the process and the focus on continuous improvement.  

Disruptive Innovation

One of the preconceptions about Taylor that we have is that it leads management away from disruptive innovation. Reading Taylor, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  If Taylorism were all about optimizing the current process, then the people that know the process best would be the ones best suited to do it.  In several places in the book, he talks about bringing in people who don’t know about the process to look at it with fresh eyes.  The idea is that someone without preconceptions could have insights into doing the work that people doing the work might not see.

Conclusion

Of course, since it was written over 100 years ago, you have to filter a lot of that information through the social science and elitism of the time. Basically, you have to be able to understand the mindset of the Victorian engineer, to see what he was really talking about. Once  you filter out the classism, The Principles of Scientific Management reads like most modern books on Lean and Agile thinking.  

The way that Taylorism, and some of the ancillary concepts have been misconstrued should be a cautionary tale for Agile development.  Many of the ideas that we associate with Taylor, are because people implemented what he was suggesting without understanding why he was suggesting it.

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