Sparking a chain reaction: Frederick Taylor, Deming, and work life

Barb ClearyWhen Frederick Winslow Taylor advanced the principles of “scientific management” in 1909, he was hailed as a master of efficient production. In the context of the new century’s focus on science, his principles were met with approval of manufacturers, who saw opportunities to improve productivity and enhance profitability.

The principles that Taylor advanced were based on the beliefs that there is one “right” way to do each job, that workers are motivated by money, and that close monitoring of processes assures that the most efficient methods could be applied. In one of his experiments, he studied the precise movements that were involved in bricklaying, timing each movement and outlining in specific step-by-step moves the most efficient way to lay bricks.

Taylor’s approach may indeed have improved productivity and streamlined processes in manufacturing. What it gained in efficiency, however, it lost in terms of pride of workmanship, individual responsibility, and the motive for innovation. Unfortunately, its effects linger even a century later in the attitudes of managers toward their workers and workers’ perceptions of their jobs. Its effects may even be seen in education, where rigorous testing assesses only master of highly specific content, with little emphasis on individual motivation or creativity.

Contrasting Taylor’s rigid approach to the role of the worker, W. Edwards Deming advanced the importance of teams, joy in work, and individual responsibility. Continuous improvement would be impossible in Taylor’s world, for a cycle of improvement demands a relationship between managers and workers that fosters a sense of shared responsibility for outcomes and mutual respect in problem-solving.

The contrast between the fundamentals of scientific management and the principles of continuous improvement may be most clear in Deming’s Point #12 of his Fourteen Points for Managers.

“Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship.” (Out of the Crisis, p. 24).  It is difficult to imagine that a sense of pride might be generated by the process of following step-by-step directions for efficient bricklaying. Indeed, “Creating a system in which employees can be proud of what they do will contribute to the company’s existence in the long run” (Gitlow, p. 175).

The company’s “existence in the long run” is clearly an outcome of Deming’s principles.  His “chain reaction” assures that a culture of improvement rather than one of measured efficiency generates jobs and enhances profitability.

In the current manufacturing climate, where changes in manufacturing may mean loss of jobs to robots or other technological advances, Deming’s approach may be more critical than ever. To assure “existence in the long run,” companies must recognize the importance of training workers for new responsibilities. In Taylor’s world, failing to meet efficiency standards meant loss of employment. In a new world where jobs demand new skills and training, company policies that assure ongoing training and insight about these demands are critical. Companies who fail to train workers for advances in work practice will find themselves unable to compete and indeed, their existence in the long run threatened. In another of his Fourteen Points, Deming insists on ongoing training, anticipating the changing skills that may be demanded in the workplace.

Developing a culture of improvement by acknowledging that employees are vital to companies’ success may indeed promise the outcomes of Deming’s Chain Reaction, not only by staying in business, but by continuing to provide jobs for the twenty-first century.

3 thoughts on “Sparking a chain reaction: Frederick Taylor, Deming, and work life

  1. Barb, your thinking is ever more insightful and it is remarkable how far ahead Deming’s discoveries and thinking were too!

    Thanks for sharing the learning!

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Dennis. I think we all keep discovering Deming in new ways…

  2. Amazing!! Deming was 100 years ahead of his time!! Companies have still not come out of command and control type of management!!

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