The rise of inbound content has a created a wide, but shallow pool of business and sales advice. Everyone’s guilty of it on occasion. There’s many variations: think of the customer first, think of your employees first, be empathetic, be efficient, be 10x better. All of it boils down to the fact that if you do an all-round better job than your competitors and give your customers good experiences, you’ll do well. Commonsense advice. The trick comes from actually implementing it in your business. That’s why you have managers and consultants as the proverbial experts. But if all the common business advice boils down to “do your job, but better,”
what do the experts know that makes them worth the high cost? Scientific Business Management. But what is that? We’ll look at the origin of the subject, see how it has developed, and inquire into the usefulness of today’s business management practices.
Frederick Winslow Taylor: A Man with a Stopwatch
Business management theory traces its heritage back to Frederick Wilson Taylor, a mechanical engineer who wanted to improve industrial efficiency in the early 1900s. He pushed for scientific study of work, specific training for employees, intensive supervision, and the split between those who design how the work should be done (managers) and those doing the work (everyone under the managers). These practices are common nowadays.
But how did Taylor develop them? The story goes that while under contract with Bethlehem Steel Company, Taylor decided there had to be a faster way to load pig iron onto rail cars. He reviewed the books and estimated that each man was loading at a rate of 12.5 tons each day.
So Taylor went down to the yard, offered a few of the best workers double wage for the day if they would participate in his experiment.
Excited about the money, the workers loaded a whopping 16.5 tons in 45 minutes. Taylor calculated that over the 10 work day that would mean 75 tons per man. He had to adjust for rest and breaks, so he made a 40% cut. Each worker should load 47.5 tons of pig iron per day with extra pay for reaching the goal and penalties for failing. Unfortunately for Taylor, the workers were not excited about needing to work 4x harder than they had been. To prove it was possible, Taylor hired a new man with a 60% rise in wages. After an intense day, the new man loaded 45.75 tons, almost hitting the quota. Taylor decided he had succeeded. He went on to handle a variety of other methods of efficiency, and after being let go of by Bethlehem Steel Company, preached his “scientific management” across the country.
Did Taylor Discover What He Thought He Discovered?
Taylor saw himself as diving into complex science that required a high level of education to understand. The workers could not be trusted to understand their own work. This line of thinking created the divide between manager and worker.
But how scientific was Taylor’s methods? Sure, he used numbers, but if you break it down his end result was that people loading pig iron would work harder when payed significantly more money. His numbers depended on a tiny sample size, and tampering based on nothing else but his own experience. They were not backed up by increased revenue for the company. Taylor sounds more like a boss throwing around their weight and own ideas, and less like someone finding a statistical, optimized solution for increasing success. Under a skeptical lens,
Taylor looks like the typical ‘hippo’ (highest paid person’s opinion) that was then backed up by the numbers he selected.
Besides asking if Taylor’s systems were truly beneficial to the bottom line, you also have to ask if they’re beneficial to the company culture and lives of the employees.
What social value is lost by placing someone under the constant control and gaze of an other? Should you treat people like components to modified to eke out more profit? When your entire work day is repetitive tasks disconnected from a holistic view of the company, what impact does that level of alienation have on a person?
How Management Has Developed
As the ideas of scientific management grew over the course of the twentieth century, solving the alienation of the modern worker was not focus.
Instead, there’s been a constant search for the magical formula that will upend the old unproductive order and bring about a new age of productivity. Maybe that involves changing your team structures, maybe you focus on making employees happier, maybe you emphasize the customer perspective.
The overall debate is summarized as being between making work more efficient and cost effective (work harder longer) and between trying to have people engage and enjoy work more (more benefits and perks). There’s been a high focus on methods being the solution. Are you using the correct framework to view your problem? Have you followed all the steps for success from the presentation.
Complexity is the enemy. Even though it’s arguably the reality. However, there is potential progress being made.
Future of Scientific Business Management
The rise of analytics and company testing has paved the way for studies that are designed to be more scientific than Taylor’s (though never completely unbiased). Deciding a specific hypothesis, testing it in isolation, and examining statistically significant results will improve your business.
The tests and data hold more sway than the opinion and experience of single individual. This what scientific business claims to always be, even if it falls short at times. Optimization and analysis have become of major interests for businesses with the growth of available data in the last decade. There is an increase in the needed ingredients for science to take place. But will scientific business management ever move away from trying to force the most productivity out of employees in the way that seems most appropriately humane for the specific situation? Should it? That’s up to the managers of the world. Ultimately each business has its own tricks, lessons, and knowledge that comes with it, and no outside consultant or manager is going to know the full complexity of how to do your job better.
Working harder and smarter is always good advice, but it depends on you and your company to realize how your business should be done.