Remixing Rule of Thumb and Scientific Management

As a half-time academic, there is a constant tension in my head between the need to produce ideas and tools which lean toward usefulness and ones that lean toward scientific soundness.  These two types of ideas are not, of course, mutually exclusive.  In fact, some of the most useful ideas are also very intellectually sound.  When my mother, for example, used to remind me to “always consider the source of a complement before you believe it,” she was sharing an idea that was extremely useful, but did not need to go into great detail about the social complexities behind complements and the sycophantry of people who offer undeserved complements in order to be proven to be true.  The idea had proven itself out in-use by members of her extended family and in her own life over the course of time as they all used it, tested it, and shared the concept with each other, making it a very useful “rule-of-thumb.”  And while the non-academic side of me is quite satisfied to rely on this time-tested and community-generated rule of thumb, the academic side of me wants to scientifically verify that it is true, and to explore the dynamics behind it.  It is questionable, however, that any scientific investigation on my part is going to be that much more useful than generations of family experience and their numerous conversation on the topic.

Organizations have been experiencing this same rule-of-thumb/scientific tension for at least the last 100 years.  In the late 1800’s, Frederick Taylor formulated his “Principles of Scientific Management” which, for the first time, attempted to use scientific principles to improve the then-current philosophy of management which was based on workers relying on self-generated “rules-of-thumb.”

“..the underlying philosophy of all of the old systems of management in common use makes it imperative that each workman shall be left with the final responsibility for doing his job practically as he thinks best, with comparatively little help and advice from the management.  And it will also show that because of this isolation of workmen, it is in most cases impossible for the men working under these systems to do their work in accordance with the rules and laws of a science or art, even where one exists. “ (Frederick Taylor: Principles of Scientific Management, 1911)

Taylor essentially argued that, in the large-scale corporations of the time, it was better to shift the burden of managing away from workmen using rules-of-thumb to managers using scientific principles.  This, in his thinking, would allow the workers to focus on working, and allow the managers to optimize the worker’s work by standardizing the best rules-of-thumb into repeatable processes that they would then document, test and improve.  Most organizations are still doing this today in some form or another.  According to Taylor, the need for his principles were designed to overcome three big weaknesses in the workforce of the industrial revolution:

  1. Many of the workers were under-educated and were often isolated from one another by race, language and lack of literacy (read his work, and you will understand what i mean)
  2. (related to weakness 1) Workers had no way of self-vetting the best rules of thumb across the entire workforce
  3. (related to weakness 2) Rules of thumb for the same task could vary widely and cause friction when combined

So here is today’s tension for organizations: Most of the three reasons for Taylor’s principles either have changed or are changing.

  1. The general workforce today is, on average, better educated than Taylor’s workforce as he portrays them in his writings
  2. The general workforce today is beginning to develop the tools (Web 2.0) and literacy (ability to use Web 2.0) necessary to self-vet their rules-of-thumb without the help of managers
  3. As these rules-of-thumb are shared and vetted, the potential exists for disparate groups to come together and to work very efficiently, having adopted similar rules-of-thumb completely outside of a management layer (The OpenSource movement, the DIY [do-it-yourself] movement, etc. are early examples of this)

The new challenge, then, for organizations (as is the challenge for me as i walk the academic/practical tightrope) is to figure out when “scientific management” is still useful.  Clearly it is in certain circumstances, but new developments are starting to call into question Taylor’s long-held ideas, and the best organizations are recalibrating their balance between rules-of-thumb and scientific management.

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3 Responses to Remixing Rule of Thumb and Scientific Management

  1. Gagan says:

    The basic issue is that the “rule of thumb” approach lacks scientific/experimental proof. Anecdotal evidence is not appreciated as one goes higher in the organization (away from the actually activity that makes money).

    I guess, this is the reason why a lot of successful CEO’s are known to give easy access to all employees; trying to be in touch with the anecdotal thumb-rules. (any one of which could prove game changing.)

  2. Christian Briggs says:

    Thanks for the comment, Gagan. In addition to the scientific part, i was surprised by Taylor’s assertion that it was the workers’ isolation from one another that made his principles necessary, since this isolation made it difficult or impossible for them to learn, and to learn from each other, in any sort of efficient way. I think this dynamic is starting to change.

    In support of your statement about CEO’s, other studies have found that top managers make little use of formal information in organizations. Rather, they seem to thrive on informal, personal communications. (Mintzberg 1973, as mentioned by Daft and Lengel, 1984)

    Daft RL, Lengel RH. Information Richness: A New Approach to Managerial Behavior and Organizational Design. Research in Organizational Behavior. 1984;6:191-233.
    Mintzberg, H. (1973) The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper and Row.

  3. Breanne says:

    Great post. My company is currently going through a major reorganization that will change the way we work with other divisions and our longheld traditional product development lifecycle.

    Management is approaching this reorg differently than usual. They are sharing the new org charts and explaining what is expected in terms of outcomes but letting employees figure out new linkages and how to engage others in the “new” organization. I think this is smart because even with the reorg and new development lifecycle, we all have the tools to figure out how to work together (and we’ll figure this out faster and better than management could anyway).

    Even so, some employees are reeling from what they sense as a lack of direction from management. I think it may take time for employees who are used to a lot of “management from management” to feel empowered to take the responsibility for some things that have traditionally been handed down to them. But I agree that this is a move in the right direction as the needs for management are changing.

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