Taylorism, Unions and “The Law of Unintended Consequences (Part I)”

Because I have hypothesized, and truthfully without consciously knowing the cultural origin of my own hypothesis, that Scientific Management (“Taylorism”) may be at the root of some of our non-academic ideas on workflow, I’ve thought to try to study it a bit more in an effort at becoming more aware of the cultural context  of my own assumptions.

Today I ran some searches on Taylorism and Unions because it struck me this morning that it’s interesting Scientific Management and Unions all appeared during the same time period.

I found some interesting work.

First, this review of a book by Milton J. Nadworny, published by Harvard in 1955:

Scientific Management and the Unions, igoo-1932: A Historical Analysis. By Milton J. Nadworny. (Publication of the Research Center in Entrepreneurial History, Harvard University.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. Pp. vii, 187. $3.75.

The reviewer, Lois MacDonald of New York University, tells us the book was written at a time when trade unions were encountering the affects of automation on job security among other factors.  I am considering ordering one of the few used copies of this book because the reviewer mentions the writer conducted a lot of research in a very thorough way.

The author concludes that both scientific managers and trade unionists gained much from these experiences in spite of the mutual hostility which prevailed for a considerable period. He finds that each was influenced by the other, the unionists gaining insight into management know-how and the managers moving in the direction of introducing humanizing elements in their approach to production techniques. The combined results, he believes, have made valuable contributions to the subsequent developments in American industry. He points out, however, that the gradual recognition of the role of the union was a point of view of the engineers and was not at the time an accepted position on the part of management in general. He suggests also that the “human relations” movement developed in the later period.

(Edit 5/6: this is the origin of “HR” – what we know think of as “Human Resources.”)

(Edit 9/30/11: added in these pictures as I did order the book)

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Another interesting article available online is by Daniel Nelson, Ohio State Press.

Something that interests me when it comes to the application of the Agile framework is this line:

At first Taylor was disappointed with the response to his work. He could talk about a larger, integrated conception of management but most manufacturers wanted solutions to specific problems.

How often is it that writing on Agile seems too conceptual and not practical enough, in the sense of divorced from real examples.  For me, this is because I can’t really open that closet transparently to the world as it involves client business.  I’m sure others encounter similar problems.

Here, too, a very interesting excerpt:

The most important effect of the deskilling argument may have been to obscure the more serious charges that scientific management led to speedups, rate cuts, and the discharge of employees whose skills or motivation were no better than average. In orthodox settings, where employers lived up to the letter of scientific management, only inferior performers had to worry. And in firms that were also committed to personnel management, even that threat was minimal. But many employers were less scrupulous or less patient. In their minds faster work meant faster, more diligent workers, not better planning and coordination, improved communications, and systematic maintenance. They gave lip service to Taylor’s idea of an interrelated whole, but they looked to the employees for immediate gains.

(My emphasis.) It makes me wonder, and I haven’t studied enough yet, if in fact Taylorism was about really making work better but had some unintended consequences. One of these unintended consequences could be that Unionism starts to be about negotiating down the “optimal time” it takes to perform a task instead of serving as the voice of the teams of workers in striving for “progress.”  Progress for me right now means adopting a culture of continuous improvement, a “Kaizen” culture.

It also makes me worry that faulty Agile adoption could have unintended consequences such as a perception on the side of management that workers can just produce faster. In fact, I feel I’ve observed this stress in some of the developers I’ve encountered as I’ve taken courses in the city with some of the Agile Masters that have come to town.

I have realized that some of my own thinking may be a result of my own particular context. Because of my experience with Himalayan cultures (Khampa, Tibetan, Sherpa, and Bhutanese) I may have something of an ability to be “culturally conscious.”  It seem safe to say those Himalayan cultures I’ve been exposed to have not experienced industrialization and Taylorism in the way we have in the West, as well as other industrial practices. Nor do many of the Western notions of organization exist within accepted organizational practices for the Himalayan organizations, at least as far as I’ve informally observed.**

This is not to make any broad cultural assumptions, nor to assert “good” or “bad” about ways to do.  It is just this adds an interesting dimension to thinking through these issues as it provides a way to look from outside to inside our own experience.

One of my ad hoc observations working as a volunteer in an office within a Tibetan Buddhist monastery was that a centralized and organized directive and way of thinking was much less prized, except in directives coming from the monastic abbot himself (which were very few).  I specifically saw this in cases of how outlying centers, associated with the monastery, had strong levels of managerial independence.  This really must have made sense pre-1959 when it might take several days of crossing Himalayan terrain on horseback to reach that outlying center – and no phones.  Now the monastery was encountering conditions in which a visit was a mere jet plane ride away and so the forces of “efficiency,” which seem to me to have roots in Scientific Management, had started to press upon the monks from the outside.

I’ll save any other detailed observations for a future post.  For now just to note at the time I found that the monastery was starting to feel the influence of outsiders with organization charts who wanted to change what seemed to those outsiders to be a disorganized way to work.

This bears further on-the-spot observation, but it seems to me that in fact some monk organization works much more on a team basis, including stand-ups at the start of a task day.  Since this monastic system has been accused of being completely feudal, for sure deeper examination might be of interest as it may reveal to us something about our own feudal, village roots.  Could our own feudal system not have been completely “bad?” Is there something of value that we should look to use?

A lot of times we mistake the unintended consequence as the expression of the logic of the original idea.  As we explore more within Agile frameworks, these sorts of consequences may be something to keep in mind.

More links to read:




** Edit on 4/11 for grammar.


2 Responses to “Taylorism, Unions and “The Law of Unintended Consequences (Part I)””

  1. Ordinary Cannibalism, Compassion and the Culturally Accepted « Twingle Says:

    […] follow up thinking about Taylorism with an article about Cannibalism?  Because from what I’m reading, Taylor himself was just […]

  2. #agile2011 Keynote with Linda Rising « Says:

    […] doing, most of the time, but are running around acting off of our concepts.  And, of course, the law of unintended consequences: We have no idea that we are actually harming these children when we praise them as we do.  This […]

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