The Machine Paradigm

Many people in the Lean and systems thinking communities wholeheartedly believe that today’s leadership and management of organizations is based on Taylorism (also called “Super Taylorism” or “Neo-Taylorism”). They believe that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s innovations in progressive management are responsible for leaders viewing workers as machines. They call it the “machine paradigm” and sometimes the “mechanistic paradigm” or the “Scientific Management paradigm.” It is a way of thinking that dehumanizes workers and diminishes their capabilities and interests, thus alienating them from their work.

The machine paradigm is a reductionist view of people correlated to the division of labor and work minutely analyzed by Taylor et al. (i.e., time and motion study) and as a method for improving labor productivity. It is seen as having penetrated all corners of business and taught higher education, and is the driving force behind the lack of change in leadership and management practice. Only those leaders who break free from this pernicious paradigm are able to redesign organizations that better reflect the needs of business, people, and society. But do you notice how few leaders break from this 100 year old paradigm? It makes you wonder if something else accounts for this way of thinking, something that goes back much further in time.

Machine Paradigm

The machine paradigm succeeds at focusing only on the apparent problem, not the actual problem, and thus misunderstands the fundamental nature of the problem. The “machine paradigm” and associated blaming of Taylor are easily destroyed by these two refutations, each one capable of standing on their own:

  • Most business leaders are conservative and want little or nothing to do with any new system of progressive management
  • The long sweep of human history reveals the actual origin of the way of thinking that dehumanizes labor

Firstly, few leaders in the beginning half of the 20th century understood Scientific Management well enough to have it function as a paradigm, just as few leaders today understand Lean management well enough for it to function as a paradigm. Instead, the ancient paradigm of classical management is the foundation onto which selected parts of Scientific Management were added. Likewise, in recent decades, we have the ancient paradigm of classical management onto which selected parts of Lean management have been added.

From the perspective of most leaders (99+ percent), progressive management presents a grave danger to accepted ways of thinking and doing things established in the late Middle Ages and earlier. Progressive management, in its full form, is to be avoided because it impinges unfavorably upon accumulated economic, social, political, historical, philosophical, business, legal, and spiritual preconceptions. Progressive management, with intentions to liberate people from the paradigm that dehumanizes workers, albeit imperfectly, contradicts leaders’ view throughout human history of workers as mere instruments of labor put to use in varied forms of production. This is how the Institution of Leadership and its loyal members perceive reality.

Secondly, machines have been in existence for only a relatively short time in human history — principally since the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760), which marked the change from handicraft to production by machines. This also marked the change in who controls the means and methods of production. That is insufficient time, nine generations, to overturn thousands of years of tradition the can easily be argued to have been highly beneficial to humanity.

Think about human history: Once upon a time, Homo sapiens worked together as a team of equals to survive. Then some thousands of years later, a man or woman emerged as leader of the group. Their tradition was to work together as a team of equals to survive, and so the leader pitched in to help the group survive. Then some thousands of years later, they discovered that some members specializing in certain activities were more productive for the group (early form of division of labor). Perhaps 10 or 20 thousand years ago, leading a group of people became a specialized function, which means the group was no longer a team of equals, but they still worked together (e.g. the leader fought in battles). However, victory in battle (or hunting) inevitably separates people into hierarchies and differentiates those who are more capable from those who are less capable. And with victory there naturally comes power and privilege. Later, some leaders decided that it was not a good idea to go into battle, but they could still enjoy the social, political, and economic benefits of victory by separating of strategy from execution. Most other leaders followed. This paradigm remains with us today, as most business leaders are unwilling to work in the trenches or consort with workers (the less capable) on or off the job.

Therefore, it is apparent that separating planning from execution, division of labor, centralized control, etc. — things that dehumanize people and alienates them from their work — were not invented by a single person 120 years ago. They are features of ancient hierarchical institutions: the monarchy, the military, and the church, which served as the model for leadership and organization in government, commerce, and elsewhere. These ancient institutions are powerful and their influence and traditions prevail today.

Why was there so little uptake for Scientific Management in its full form from the 1900 through 1940, as was so thoroughly documented in the extensive literature of the time? Why has there been so little uptake for Lean management in its full form from the 1980s through today, likewise thoroughly documented? It is because leaders remain committed to treating people as labor rather than as people. Treating people as human beings corrupts classical management, which those currently in power, as well as their predecessors and successors, have no desire to see happen. Their driving interest is in preserving the status quo. Work in hierarchical systems, coupled with division of labor, is intrinsically alienating to greater or lesser extents, which is fine with leaders past, present, and future — with or without time and motion study. It has nothing at all to do with Frederick Winslow Taylor or his many colleagues whose work was dedicated to breaking the status quo.

Many in the Lean and systems thinking communities credit W. Edwards Deming for initiating the shift away from Taylor’s “mechanistic paradigm” (but why not Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, whose work predates Deming’s 14 points by 70 years? [we likely know why]). That attribution is valid only if one ignores the abundance of evidence devoted to seeing workers treated as people foundational to the the work of Taylor, Lillian Gilbreth, and the business leaders who fully embraced Scientific Management. Deming did great work, and his System of Profound Knowledge, while excellent, has been persistently ignored by nearly all business leaders because they do not want their preconceptions challenged or negated. Instead, generations of leaders support and perpetuate classical management because it delivers vast economic, social, and political privileges that they are unwilling to give up share even in small amounts.

Systems thinkers like to search for complexity (due to a preconception) when simplicity usually holds the answer. Some Lean people also embrace complexity, even though the core lesson from Toyota is to simplify. Recall Occam’s razor, the Law of Parsimony, which says to select the solution with the fewest assumptions, often interpreted as “the simplest solution is almost always the best.” In this case, the “System of Profound Privilege” embedded in the Institution of Leadership is the simplest solution and, if not the best, it is certainly far superior to the “machine paradigm” erroneously attributed to Taylor.

And so herein lies the problem: Many in the Lean and systems thinking communities are looking at the wrong system. It is not a machine-based paradigm that is the problem, it is the System of Profound Privilege. As long as they think the “machine paradigm” is the problem, the System of Profound Privilege will continue to go unnoticed, thus allowing it to continue to thrive. This way of thinking, Taylor and the machine paradigm, inadvertently serves the interests of the Institution of Leadership. It does leaders a huge favor to remain focused on the apparent problem, Taylor, rather than the actual problem. They could not have asked for a better diversion from the facts to aid in their faithful efforts to maintain the status quo.

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