Aug 072011

One of the agile methods’ claim is to overcome the tayloristic approach seen in the attempts to “industrialize” software development. For example, they don’t separate roles within the team, and they develop the product stepwise and evolutionary instead of defining it upfront. So is tayloristic thinking now history? It is worth taking a closer look.

A bit of history
Frederick Winslow Taylor published his thoughts in 1911 in a paper called “Scientific Management”. As widely known, his ideas were first implemented by Ford in the production of the famous Model T car (“You can have any color you want, provided it’s black!”). Soon after, the method revolutionized all of the manufacturing industries.

The basis for Taylor’s approach is the following thinking:
There are two groups of people – scientifically educated managers and uneducated workers. While the managers strive for excellence and higher goals, the workers’ only incentive is the money they receive.
Of course this view was criticized later, but it was just the way of thinking in the early 20th century.
Based on this, “Scientific Management” suggests the following:

  1. Strictly separate management and workers
  2. Management shall define “one best way” how work is to be done, and check for compliance
  3. A high degree of division of labor has to be achieved, as only with very small manufacturing steps it is possible to implement the second principle (defining and controlling “one best way”)

So this is it – published 100 years ago, and made for the manufacturing industry. But could it be that there is still an influence on how we think and act in today’s knowledge work? Let’s check.

1. The importance of methods
Did you ever notice the headlines in professional discussion groups on Linkedin and similar networks? Here are some recent examples:
Does anybody have a WBS for setting up a datacenter? Does Kanban have a product owner? Get the PMP certification now! Is it possible to combine Scrum and Waterfall?

What is interesting: The Agile Manifesto implicitly tells us that methods that work for someone do not necessarily work for someone else. It depends on problem, team and context (Andy Hunt just published a good article about this).
But this insight does not yet seem to be part of our thinking. Instead people and organizations are looking for the “one best way” how to solve their problem. As one can see from the questions, understanding an approach as such (and reflecting on its applicability) is sometimes not even tried. The belief in standards is so strong that way more attention is paid to the methods rather than to the problem itself.

Interestingly, as one of the agile methods even Scrum seems to be marketed and discussed in exactly that way – Scrum is the “one best way”, and you can even get certified for it. Discussions often go around how to interpret something, rather than how to adapt it to a specific situation.

Methods are an important market with demand and supply. But in the end this comes from a tayloristic thinking. Not that methods are useless, but applied to unique projects and situations they need to be looked at with reason and understood as guidance. Progress will be made once people start asking “This is the problem I have – how do I best tackle it?”

2. Staffing
Did you ever think about the human resource management seen in companies today? On the one hand the importance of teams is emphasized, but on the other hand HR is very much focussed on individuals, roles and functional skills.
We want teams to perform and deliver projects, but while e.g. successful sport teams spend a lot of time training together we

  • hire individuals
  • put them in pool organizations and “job families” to develop them within a predefined role
  • and we measure individual goals and achievements

This is a modernized taylorism. A step forward would be to value and develop teams as a whole, and spend more attention to improving their productivity.

3. Monitoring and Control
We still have the separation of management and workers suggested by Taylor (even though the workers are extremely well educated as well today). But that is not the point.
Management of course needs to know what’s going in the company and ensure things are on a good way. But how do they usually do this? They define and monitor procedures: Standardized processes, mandatory tools, review boards checking projects for compliance.

Focussing control on how the work is done again is tayloristic thinking (and again is not overly effective when applied to knowledge work). A new (and powerful) way of monitoring and control would instead be to focus on the outcomes. In order to still have regular checkpoints this would lead to smaller projects with more frequent deliverables. In fact it is about applying the philosophy of agile and lean to an entire organization.

We’re clearly not there yet. There is a hidden Taylor in us and our thinking, and in the way we run projects and organizations. And it is still hindering us from further increasing productivity of software projects and knowledge work.

Changing a mindset requires more than just changing methods.


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