Over the last 239 years, organizations have been applying hierarchy, and top-down command-oriented management. This mindset erupted with the dawn of the steam engine in 1771, and in the late 1800s it was honed to razor sharpness by Frederick Winslow Taylor – the father of efficiency thinking and the science of productivity. Taylor’s work is credited with the productivity gains of the 21st century. But Taylor and his many disciples have exacted a huge toll on the role of humans in the workplace.
Taylor believed that an empirical, data-driven approach to the design of work would yield big productivity gains. His ideas are the foundation of current-day thinking about efficiency and methodologies like Six Sigma. Taylor believed that efficiency came from “knowing exactly what you want men to do, and then seeing that they do it in the best and cheapest way”. Solving the problem of inefficiency has been business’s mission for the last 239 years, and efficiency has been pursued ahead of every other goal.
As a result, humans have become cogs in business machinery pursuing efficiency. The mental image it inspires dominates organizational management and the way people work. It is a debilitating mental model that negatively influences how every executive, manager, and employee performs their role:
- There are two kinds of people in organizations, the machinery and people that control the machinery.
- Every cog has its role, and not another.
- Machines do not think, cogs do what they are told to do.
- Efficiency increases productivity – true for machines, but not so true for human endeavors.
Organizations have institutionalized the idea that we are machines awaiting instruction. It is hardly the model we would have chosen if we had the choice at the very beginning. Two hundred thirty-nine years of deterioration is much easier because it is incremental. It is hardly noticeable until something happens that makes that model unpalatable.
The global economy, the work environment, and the world around us has changed.
There is a story about coffee producers in the 1960s who experienced the collapse of the coffee crop. One producer facing cost increases for the best beans decided that instead of raising ground coffee prices they would add a lesser grade bean to their coffee. Taste tests with their coffee drinkers indicated they could not perceive a difference between the best beans and the grind with lesser beans added. The efficiency of the idea caused the producer year after year to incrementally add more of the lesser bean and make more profit. Each year their coffee drinkers validated that they could not tell the difference.
New coffees entered the market using only the best beans. They asked people new to coffee drinking to compare their new brand to the incrementalist’ brand. These new coffee drinkers found that the taste of the incremental blend was so horribly different that people were asking “Why would I want to drink that bitter coffee over this new one?” The old coffee producer had incrementally destroyed the taste of their coffee and woke up to a crisis – the only people who liked their coffee were those who stayed with the brand through the incremental changes.
Businesses today are in the same state of crisis as the coffee producer of the 1960s. By incrementally adding Taylorism to business we have removed the human aspect of business and destroyed our blend. Today we awake to a new global economic condition, new social expectations, and full swing consumerization. The businesses we have honed into efficient cog-filled environments are poised to be changed by relationship-based economics. It is an economic paradigm that demands a human-centered approach to business-consumer relationships. The impersonal economic relationship is no longer desired. Organizations must become human to their customers.
But issues with the business-consumer relationship are just the tip of the crisis. What hides below the waterline changes the fundamentals upon which every efficiency-oriented organization thinks about managing people. The nature of work is fundamentally changing. It is returning to a human and naturally social environment.
I can only imagine that the current generation entering the workforce are the new coffee drinkers who cannot believe that work has become so mechanized, impersonal, and non-participative.
We have some serious work to do in order to return humans, their cognition, their curiosity, and their interactions back into the nature of work. Work has lost ‘context’ which determines meaning and gives us the autonomy to make a relevant contribution.