Lesson No. 8

The Unexpected Renaissance of Taylorism

by Sandra Siebenhüter



Dead but not yet buried. Taylorism is being reintroduced by managers in many enterprises and the principle of good (and responsible) leadership of employees is suffering. At first glance this seems remarkable as Taylorism, at least by the 1980s, appeared to have outlived its usefulness. Taylorism, which breaks down workflows into the smallest possible steps and its attempt to strictly separate mental and manual work, and thus establish two distinct types of employee (white and blue collar), seems no longer appropriate for a modern, complex economy and generally better educated workforces and societies.

For a long time, a new consensus had rejected Taylor's idea, that the "The one best way" doesn't exist. Instead, lean management based on the view of human beings who can become committed and creative employees, who independently solve problems and willingly participate in the success of an enterprise, seemed to best reflect the reality of contemporary work as experienced by both supervisors and subordinates.

At that time, we were glad to register that individual freedom and flexibility at work (not direction from above and permanent availability) was rising and work performance has been improved as more decision-making power and responsibility was delegated to employees. So where are we now, 30 years later? Well, good old Frederick Taylor become revitalised, and not, as one might expect, solely on the production lines of industrial subcontractors, but also in more innovative sectors.

Based on his directive "to break work down into the smallest steps possible so that it can be easily performed by every unskilled worker" Taylorism became accepted as the principle of organization. At that time this approach made sense: it was modern and resulted in an almost unbelievable increase in productivity. However, since then economic circumstances have changed and our view of human beings has also been transformed.

So why is the division of labor being revived?

Instead of simply sticking to the process model and believing in the commitment and skills of workers, attempts are now being made, by issuing increasingly detailed instructions to employees, to minimize any perceived risks of error. The result is frustrated employees who are denied any decision-making powers.

A typical comment by employees is, "There are strict rules that I have to obey ... with less and less leeway; all that matters now is standardization. The tools I must use are prescribed, and the rules are increasingly standardized without space for interpretation to suit changing circumstances. Today I get standard forms to fill in ..." *

A greater difference between this and lean management or Kaizen is hardly imaginable. The motto of successful firms was, " create motivated teams who constantly aim to find even better ways of doing things... ."

The first reason for the emergence of Neo-Taylorism – this time around primarily in administration and services — is plain and simple: cost cutting. This can be used to justify almost anything. For a Managerist nothing is more self-evident than that wages, particularly for straightforward, less-responsible and highly-regulated work, must be low because such workers do not need higher qualifications or expertise and can be easily replaced. As a worker representative in the ancillary sector said, "Here job rotation is long gone because it is too expensive."

The second reason is an apparent contradiction: avoidance of personal responsibility combined with an urge to control. The narrower the scope of work allocated by management, the easier it is to supervise a large number of interfaces and thus justify micro-management. A functional and strong hierarchical organization is an open invitation to micro-management. A deformed time-and-motion model or a degenerate application of the principle of management-by-objectives requires the mechanical assignment of each worker's contribution to performance, from top down and bottom up: a bean counters paradise. This is closely connected with the kind of gratification which rewarded rather the success of the team than the individual contribution of each member. While this individualization of performance is an attempt to be fair, it is completely misplaced when the costs and benefits are taken fully into account.

The third reason — which is often overlooked, is the operating method of Enterprise Resource Planning programs, and above all the omnipresent SAP. The matrix prescribed by the program requires continual data input. The requirement for seamless standardized processes is the inevitable collateral damage that results. The demands placed upon, above all, publically quoted companies, to be able to report current costs and margins at all times — in a sense enforced continuous invoicing, is epitomized by the SAP program, which is a source of absolute inflexibility, not least because it turns human beings into its technical servants.

The fourth reason is short-termism in thought and action. The time it takes to seriously consider a situation or event, to become familiar with it, to come to grips with a new department, is missing. On the contrary, the emphasis now is on completing tasks swiftly, without considering anything but the short-term: Act now, think later.

A fifth reason: Not all employees, even university graduates, are capable of pro-actively thinking about their work tasks or willing to assume personal responsibility for their actions. The number of those who adopt a passive role and deny any personal responsibility is on the rise. In fact, the latest trend toward standardization suits them fine. That way they don't have to develop any work processes themselves; they can adopt ready-made procedures, and so avoid being held responsible for any mishaps, which they can conveniently blame on the 'system'.

Undesirable divisive effects and consequences

How far this dehumanization of work processes is consistent with Managerism can be ascertained by looking at the situations vacant ads: there are numerous narrowly formulated descriptions of jobs which are very well paid, but very few ads for people who design, plan or coordinate operational functions. As some do the planning while the others do the working, any experience and insight gained by practise does not flow back properly into the planning process. No matter how often corporate managers talk about their 'learning organization' and of 'closing the loop', in practice very little serious effort is made to bring this about. It is therefore unsurprising that excessive bureaucracy is complained about by those at the bottom of the opinion-forming hierarchy. Familiar complaints are, "We are supervising ourselves to death ... every signature requires a counter-signature ... We have controlling internally, controlling externally, we have controlling in every department and sub-department." **

Clear lessons to be learnt

  1. A certain degree of standardization is essential, but any excess will convey a clear message to the workforce: every single one of you can be replaced — that is why we divide the workflow into multiple small stages.
  2. It detracts from the entrepreneurial purpose, because everything revolves around delivering customer orders, development tasks and rationalization measures.
  3. People ('human resources'), and this is often forgotten in firms headed by Managerists, are not dispensable. If employees do not commit themselves and use common sense to override confusing directives from above, things will start to go wrong.

Success or failure at global competition is determined by open mindedness, commitment, flexibility, speed of implementation, and creating value: all qualities once widely available to many German enterprises (and in other countries) and generally accepted qualities for competitive advantage. The reintroduction of Taylorist principles, which propagate the idea of the unwilling, lazy worker, is leading us down the wrong track. It does justice neither the employees nor the company or society; assuming that the company is at least vaguely committed to values such as those of the European enlightenment: human emancipation, personal responsibility and, at least in continental Europe, the social-market economy. In fact, committed and properly trained human beings are only truly a resource when their capabilities are recognized and encouraged so that they themselves are motivated to fully exploit them. The revival of Taylorist doctrines for short-term financial gain is inappropriate and wrong.


* compare Kotthoff, H., Wagner, A. (2008): Die Leistungsträger – Führungskräfte im Wandel der Firmenkultur, Berlin, page 112.
** Ebda. page 113