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October 23, 2012

Neo Taylorism or DevOps Anti Patterns

By John Willis

In 1911 Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote “The Principles of Scientific Management.”  Taylor’s ideas formed the basis for the 20th century command and control management archetype. His principles and scientific methods for worker efficiency and standardization set the foundation for American steel and automobile manufacturers tremendous prosperity in the early 20th century.  Henry Ford adopted many of Taylor’s ideas, picking up where Taylor left off, so much so that many consider his assembly line an extension of Taylor’s initial study.  By 1927, Ford achieved reductions in manufacturing cycle times from 750 to 93 minutes while  simultaneously reducing the cost of automobiles from $850 to $300.

Taylor created an efficiency movement that became an American craze.  From typists to surgeons, even housewives were adopting Taylor’s ideas in the early days of the 20th century.  Alfred P Sloan, General Motors CEO from 1923 to 1956, ratcheted up Taylor’s principles leading GM to become the largest corporation on earth. Some would argue that Taylor, Ford, and Sloan set the stage for most of America’s unprecedented growth and prosperity in the 20th century.  However, some could also argue that this prosperity comes with a cost facing the modern day “knowledge worker” economy.  This style of top down management has been called Taylorism, where management drives workers to maximum  efficiencies and upper management provides decisions with little or no input from individual workers or collectively.  Taylorism is embedded in our modern culture.  Critics are now referring to this culture as Neo-Taylorism.

In 1986, Konosuke Matsushita the founder of Panasonic, made the following prediction about America:

“We will win, and you will lose. You cannot do anything about it because your failure is an internal disease. Your companies are based on Taylor’s principles. Worse, your heads are Taylorized, too.”

In 1993 before Clinton’s inauguration, John Sculley, the CEO at Apple at the time, accused Taylor and Ford as the heavy hands that hold American economy hostage.   Though movements like Lean and DevOps provide a counter-intuitive alternative, Neo-Taylorism remains the dominant organizational model of contemporary commerce. In today’s agile, web scale, and velocity driven business environment organizations that persist in the shackles of this Neo-Tayloristic model will ironically become less and less efficient than their Lean and DevOps practicing counterparts.  The Lean and DevOps style movements promote knowledge workers, bottom-up driven and non command and control management influence.

Are you working in a Neo-Taylorism style organization? Symptoms of Neo-Taylorism can be simply summarized with the following traits.

  • Board level or bankers controlling the day-to-day business affairs.
  • Publicity or vanity driven metrics influencing business decisions.
  • Organization shuffles, reorganizations as a substitute for improvements.
  • Yearly employee ranking systems, management by objectives and quotas to improve efficiency.
  • Measurement systems that ignore variation and process control.
  • Treating management as the customer as opposed to treating the customer as the customer.
  • Putting people in competition with one another and not promoting collaboration.
  • Advocating and even cultivating an atmosphere of fear.
  • Rumors and threats of layoffs along with actual layoffs.
  • Rewarding behavior and advocating punishments to gain compliance.

Interestingly, Taylor is considered a monster by some and an American hero by others.  It is unquestionable that the prosperity most of us enjoy in the 21st century can be attributed to Taylor’s ideas.  However, there are some who have gone as far as blaming the sinking of the Titanic on Taylor due to the pay-per-call efficiency reward model that was used to incentivize the ship to shore operators.  The premise being that early warning messages of dangerous waters might not have been relayed due to passenger call bandwidth utilization.

I think the most important point of Taylor’s contribution is that he was the first person to truly apply scientific studies to idea of worker management and is clearly the father of what we today call “management”.  Even though management scientists like Deming, Ohno and Goldratt have created counterintuitive movements their achievements may not have been possible without Taylor’s initial works.

- About The Authors
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John Willis

John Willis has worked in the IT management industry for more than 35 years. He is researching DevOps, DevSecOps, IT risk, modern governance, and audit compliance. Previously he was an Evangelist at Docker Inc., VP of Solutions for Socketplane (sold to Docker) and Enstratius (sold to Dell), and VP of Training & Services at Opscode where he formalized the training, evangelism, and professional services functions at the firm. Willis also founded Gulf Breeze Software, an award winning IBM business partner, which specializes in deploying Tivoli technology for the enterprise. Willis has authored six IBM Redbooks for IBM on enterprise systems management and was the founder and chief architect at Chain Bridge Systems.

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  • Jørgen Hovelsen Oct 25, 2012 7:40 am

    Well written! In response to this I will suggest an article by Quinn and Spreitzer from 1997 (titled "The Road to Empowerment: Seven Questions Every Leader Should Consider") about Empowerment. One of the elements of the knowledge worker-era is empowerment. But empowerment is something that must be felt, not delegated. Half of the leaders in this study dropped the notion of empowerment from its business plans when faced with this view.

    • Ben Newton Nov 14, 2012 3:20 am

      Here is a PDF link to Quinn and Speitzer's paper:

    • John Willis Nov 10, 2012 12:00 pm

      Jørgen, Thanks for the article.  I will definitely take a look at it.  You make an interesting point about empowerment.  A good friend of my has this cool quote "The objective of a top down manager should be to promote bottom up thinking".  The catch 22 is that I agree with that statement and I also agree with your point "must be felt, not delegated".  I am sure there is an interesting needle to be threaded here.  Maybe "promote" is  create an environment where workers feel the need/desire to be empowered. Also the caveat being, leaders must be really good at hiring workers who can deal with empowerment.  It sounds like the new HR roles popping up at companies like Netflix of Chief Talent Acquisition Officer is an indication of a good trend in this area..   Thanks again   

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