Retrospective — We Dramatically Increased Efficiency and then Disengagement

It might be time for a shift.  A move made a century ago, quickly crisscrossing the earth, might have reached its end, and we might be ready to stand on those shoulders of excellence and see quite a bit further.

Here is a story I found recently in a new book by Todd RoseThe End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Value Sameness.  It refers to Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the founders of the worldwide efficiency movement of the past century.

“Before Taylor set out to develop a new science of work, companies usually hired the most talented workers available, regardless of their particular skill set, and then let these star employees reorganize a company’s processes according to what they believed would help them be most productive.  Taylor insisted this was completely backward.  A business should not conform its system to fit individual employees, no matter how special they were perceived to be. Instead, business should hire Average Men who fit the system. ‘An organization composed of individuals of mediocre ability, working in accordance with policies, plans, and procedures discovered by analysis of the fundamental facts of their situation, [would] in the long run prove more successful and stable than an organization of geniuses each led by inspiration,’ affirmed Taylor…At a 1906 lecture, Taylor explained how he saw the relationship between workers and managers: ‘In our scheme, we do not ask for the initiative of our men.  We do not want any initiative.  All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick’…In 1918, Taylor doubled down on these ideas…’The most important idea should be that of serving the man who is over you his way, not yours‘” (pp. 43-47).

Undeniably this efficiency philosophy led to dramatic increases in the productivity of organizations.  And it seems to have led to very high levels of disengaged employees.  And it seems that in the age of the information economy, it matters whether people are engaged or not.  In ecosynomic terms, Taylor describes the experience of the inner circle of vibrancy, where each individual person is a replaceable part of a bigger machine that brings specific capacities to a very specific task, in a very specific way.  We now know that, in this age, that philosophy leads to deeply disengaged people, and that it matters whether people are engaged or not.  While much of work is described today using the same terms Taylor does above, it might be time to build on what we have learned.