The belief that the art of managing people can be reduced to science has been guffawed by journalist Dan Lyons in his new book, "Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable" (Atlantic Books).
Lyons says the phenomenon has created a whole layer of workshops, online courses and exercises for employees – on top of their actual jobs – which require people to learn an alphabet soup of acronyms, wear a hat and, by the end of the day, draw a smiley or angry face on a calendar that plots team members’ moods.
Lyons writes of an American named Frederick Taylor who, in the 1890s, claimed he had developed a formula that could optimise the efficiency of any process. He says Taylor, who has been described as the founding father of management science, had deeply flawed methods to the point of being ridiculous.
“Taylor carried a stopwatch and timed everything,” Lyons writes. “He published scientific sounding papers … [But] he fudged his numbers. He cheated and lied. He was at best misguided and at worst a ‘shameless fraud’, as Jill Lepore put it in The New Yorker in October 2009.”
In Taylor’s lifetime, some of the first big global corporations were coming into being and major universities were founding their business schools. Many of these schools taught their students Taylorism. His principles would go on to inform MBA curriculums and inspire a whole new vocation: management consultants.
Taylor died in 1915 and was best known for an experiment, which he boasted had quadrupled the number of pig iron slabs that a group of workmen could load in a single day. But the true story of Taylor’s famous experiment is far more interesting than his own sanitised, celebrated account. The real version goes that Taylor increased the quotas at the Bethlehem Steel company and the workers quit. Taylor was thrown out by the company but not before he collected consultant’s fees (possibly greater than the savings made from the productivity gains).
“For the past century, latter-day Taylorites have been creating magical programs and methodologies that can be imposed onto an organisation and make the whole machine perform at a higher level,” Lyons says.
“If we workers are the lab rats, management gurus are the mad scientists who stand behind the curtain, concocting new ideas and testing them out on the rest of us to see if they work.”
Lyons says the “management myth”, as author of The Management Myth Matthew Stewart put it, has been a decades-long hard sell from those people who are “supremely confident even when they have no idea what they are doing”.
And yet, there remains a healthy appetite for management gurus in the business world. Two of the newest forms of Taylorism (which Lyons admonishes as management fads), Agile and Lean Start Up, have been embraced by the corporate world. Both methods of organisational efficiency originated from computer scientists in Silicon Valley.