Can We Get Over Scientific Management, Please?

September 25, 2017 by
Filed under: Agility, Leadership, People, Process, Project management, Uncategorized 

One of the primary products of the second Industrial revolution around the beginning of the 20th century came from Frederick Winslow Taylor. We need to move on.

Taylorism, or Scientific Management, focuses on the optimization of workflows and improving labour productivity. At the time, when the primary concerns were centred around developing factories and automation, the approach served the needs of business very well.

To start up and run an efficient factory, you need to standardize processes to support interchangeability of resources, you focus on efficiency to reduce waste and increase profit, you need to break down the work processes into small, discrete steps which can easily be codified into a clear workflow and each optimized on its own in order to optimize the entire work chain.

This improved the running of factories, but brought about the rise of unions as a means of managing work conditions and the general two-tier ‘management vs. worker’ or ‘command and control’ hierarchy in organizations. Taylorism also introduced the role and expertise of a process improvement consultant (which surely had a different moniker a century ago), to devise that standardized process and profit handsomely from their efforts.

But times change. More accurately, new domains emerge.

Factories still exist today, and standardization and optimization are still critical for success, possibly more than ever. The principles behind Taylorism have been honed and polished quite well in a hundred years. Factories still benefit from this way of thinking.

Unfortunately, those principles and practices have been inappropriately applied outside the manufacturing domain, tainting how we run our projects.

About 20 years ago, starting out as a management consultant, I was in the ‘process improvement’ game.

I’d go into an organization that was running knowledge-based projects and apply those very principles that have been around for a century. I would focus on optimization, codified and standardized work practices, and I would help an organization run their projects using a standardized approach. It might have been based on, in those days, the Capability Maturity Model, or ISO standards, or perhaps the Rational Unified Process. Today, think branded Agile, or SAFe, or your favourite framework – the names change, the intent and approach are unchanged.

And lo, at the end of the day, performance was improved (cue the angels singing here), at least for the time that we were in the company.

Looking back, though, the results we attributed to our efforts were not based on our efforts, but primarily due to two reasons:

  • most of the time our presence got people to think and intentionally discuss how they worked together, almost always for the first time, and
  • even a bad or poorly applied standard process can be better than an ad-hoc approach, at least in the short-term.

So I stopped ‘process improvement consulting’ and the intent of crafting a standardized process as I started my own practice. I will never pitch a particular approach as standard for an organization, and don’t believe any organization in the project game should seek this out.

This outdated approach, unfortunately, remains the bread and butter for many in the project consulting field, and they are still generating the same outcomes (and revenues). Indeed, I often work with groups that have had a standardized approach inflicted on them in the past, with the intent to help them out of the quagmire they now find themselves in.

Here’s the thing. if you are trying to develop a new product, invent something, do some innovative research, or even figure out the best way to move your family across the country to a new town, you are doing little that resembles the practices of a factory flow, and standardization of how you might go about solving that challenge will stifle creativity and innovation.

You’ll likely get things done, but the project’s likely to be a painful experience, and the results aren’t going to stand out as world-changing.

Projects, where our intent is to produce something that did not exist before, are dramatically different than knocking a bunch of the same stuff off an assembly line.

Unfortunately, the dominant line of thinking, training and certification around project management borrows far too much on the old Taylorism thinking. Command and control, standardized practices and procedures and work phases, project manager as the driver (owner, boss?) of the project, prescriptive planning. This generates work conditions where the intent is to fit everything into a prescribed time constraint rather than working to elegantly optimize value delivered. Focus is on the product and the process, rather than the people.

Ah, there’s the rub. Run a factory and people are interchangeable widgets, that’s part of the result of optimizing things into those small work units. You may have experienced a project with high turnover (hopefully not as high as my experience on a project with 40% turnover a year) – people are cherished no more than furniture or laptops, and there’s no idea of the massive cost of that turnover.

The dominant thinking in project management needs to diverge from the thinking behind running an efficient factory.

The primary practice of management consulting in project-based, knowledge work environments needs to shift dramatically – primary emphasis should be on the intentional crafting of a cohesive, high performing collaborative team.

With that in place, and the awareness that this team can select the optimal approach they will use to solve the particular challenges of their current project (and this is not rocket science), the team can dramatically improve performance and sustain it.

And in doing so, wean themselves from ‘process improvement’ consultants and break away from the popular century-old shackles of thinking based on an irrelevant domain. – JB


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