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Management consulting isn't a science, it's a party trick.
August 7, 2011 6:42 PM   Subscribe

"Taylor always said that scientific management would usher in a "mental revolution," and it has. Modern life is Taylorized life, the Taylor biographer Robert Kanigel observed, a dozen years back. Above your desk, the clock is ticking; on the shop floor, the camera is rolling. Manage your time, waste no motion, multitask: your iPhone comes with a calendar, your car with a memo pad. "Who is Schmidt?" journalists wanted to know, a century ago. Vell, ve are." [The history of management consulting]
posted by vidur (30 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
This post seems kinda familiar.
posted by subversiveasset at 7:01 PM on August 7, 2011


The article is from 2009. I couldn't find it as a double. Sorry if I missed something.
posted by vidur at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2011


I'd rather geeks rans shit than schmoozers. Geeks credit is assigned equitably.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:15 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Geeks credit is assigned equitably."

But according to what geeks think is important. No different to Taylor et. al, really…
posted by Pinback at 7:19 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


But according to what geeks think is important.

Haha right, wasn't there an ask me by a female programmer recently who got a "you don't fit in, you might want to look for a new job " speech from her manager because she had an iphone and not and android phone?
posted by Ad hominem at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's probably familiar because it ran in the New Yorker. But it's a great piece. We're all Taylorized; the American education system is Taylorized. I was a big fan of this article when it came out because it helped contextualize the Gilbreths, of "Cheaper by the Dozen" fame. There's lots more information out there about time & motion studies and scientific management.
posted by Miko at 7:44 PM on August 7, 2011


wow this article was great. Excellent. I loved how it spent a lot of time talking about the people behind Taylor.
posted by rebent at 7:47 PM on August 7, 2011


I've worked for geeks several times and I've never met a more passive-aggressive bunch with their own weird rules and rituals. Give me the schmoozers.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:51 PM on August 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


As I recall the article claims that taylorism and scientific management is at heart based on fraud. The "data" that went into the time and motion studies was made up. When this came out I hoped it would have had a bigger splash. But I guess our society is too invested in it and the whole MBA business school tree that grew from the seed of taylorism.
posted by Chekhovian at 8:12 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it's more complicated than that. The science (which is basically behavioral science applied to profitmaking) was in its infancy, and the data was often manipulated and the research conditions managed artificially. But it's not the data itself that's had an influence, it's the larger idea that productivity can be meaningfully quantified and managed for maximum output, using study tecniques like motion study or timing-and-tracking. The evolutionary science of 100 years ago was equally in its infancy, but it formed a foundation for ideas in play today. I don't see this as much different. You can argue with the theory and methodology, but the main ideas introduced - that productivity can be quantified and maximized - is perennial.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Taylor and Mondrian were discussed in a previous MetaFilter thread.
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:27 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


that productivity can be quantified and maximized

Right, and productivity must be maximized, efficiency is now a measure of worth. Anything that is inefficient, take print media for example, must be mercilessly weeded out, all profits must be maximized. We happily eliminate millions of people from the workplace by wringing every ounce out of the few employees remaining. I sometimes tell people, and they think I am joking, if I ask you to tell me what you do all day don't tell me. I don't write software to let you kick back and relax and just hit enter all day, I write software to eliminate your job.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:38 PM on August 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Best part of the article.

Wilson wanted to know what happened to workers who weren’t “first-class men”:

THE CHAIRMAN: Scientific management has no place for such men?
MR. TAYLOR: Scientific management has no place for a bird that can sing and won’t sing. . . .
THE CHAIRMAN: We are not . . . dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are a part of society and for whose benefit society is organized.

posted by psycho-alchemy at 8:48 PM on August 7, 2011 [17 favorites]


I've met both schmoozers and geeks who couldn't manage people, that isn't what I meant, nor does the article discuss it.

I actually meant the geekification of real power itself. As an example, I once noticed that DeShaw asks for your Putnam and IMO scores on their application form. Another example might be all the statisticians employed by various campaigns.

All that information should eventually benefit everyone. As an example, algorithmic trading means SEC investigations have vastly more information, assuming the SEC wants to catch insider trading. You know, it's pretty obvious your personal email should be encrypted while your professional emails rest on unencrypted on the company's servers. Assange's philosophy, hello?!?

Anyone who hasn't read it should check out In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:54 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bottom line: Taylor's Scientific Method is great for turning out production workers, and crappy for turning out optimized knowledge workers. Deming and Drucker pointed away fro Taylor.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:00 PM on August 7, 2011


"I've met both schmoozers and geeks who couldn't manage people, that isn't what I meant, nor does the article discuss it."

Nor is that what I meant.

What I actually meant was that, while the metrics themselves may attempt to be quantitative and minimally arbitrary, the use and application of them almost certainly will be arbitrary. "Geeky" data like (to use your example) maths competition scores is no less subject to that kind of misinterpretation and misapplication than the metrics Taylor and the Gilbreth's collated.

"All that information should eventually benefit everyone."

Only if it's interpreted, applied, and used properly.
posted by Pinback at 9:25 PM on August 7, 2011


Right, people don't actually manage, or even hire by statistics, metrics or test scores. All business is personal, we spend more time with our coworkers than our spouses. It would just as possible to manage by metrics as it would be to pick our spouse by math tests scores. Unless of course we are talking about CEOs firing thousands of people they never met.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:47 PM on August 7, 2011


Taylor's 'management science' wasn't a science at all, nor did it give rise to one.

It was a kind of nativistic movement imitating science and hoping thereby to gain a measure of the enormous credibility of science, rather as the cargo cults of the South Pacific imitated airports with bamboo to attract the big silver birds stuffed with all good things.

Only it worked! American business executives bought it and actually paid big money for unadulterated garbage that made their businesses run worse, and that broke the social contract which might have led to a more stable, prosperous world.

How well it works today you can judge by our current circumstances, and by the dire terms of the most optimistic forecasts.
posted by jamjam at 9:50 PM on August 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


The issue is outright access, not correct interpretation. Access alone will bread diverse and productive interpretations. We're currently witnessing a push against access to corporate and government information, but that pendulum will hopefully swing back the other way with a vengeance.

I gave Putnam scores as an example for selecting stock brokers, for whom vaguely that sort of cleverness does matter. If you prefer, we could discuss using open source project contributions to select hires for powerful tech companies. Yes, all these metric are horribly miss-applied, ask any academic, but they're infinitely better than the alternatives.

I dislike the MBA bullshit as much as the next guy, but the solution is to "do it right", not don't do it. In particular, we should clarify that, as Vibrissae noted, management degrees represent a qualification to manage people significantly less intelligent and capable than oneself.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:46 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Deming and Drucker pointed away from Taylor.

Matthew Stewart (the author of the book that this article is reviewing) deals with the humanist side of management too:
All of that humanity—as anyone in my old firm could have told you—was just a more subtle form of bureaucratic control. It was a way of harnessing the workers’ sense of identity and well-being to the goals of the organization, an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement.
This article makes me think there is something in scientific management that is worth rehabilitating for the left. Lillian Gilbreth tried to improve the productivity of household work, treating it as labor on par with regular employment, exactly as Marx did. He believed that capitalism depends on the unpaid household labor and emotional labor by the wives taking care of the male workforce. In the New Yorker article, the author objects to treating household labor as work in the following way:
Sometimes the best part of making a pie is the mess, and rolling the dough too thin so you’ve got some extra for jam tarts, and for playing with.
Here, making a pie is play, it's leisure. Not work. It's easy to see how the cult of domesticity that celebrates homemaking as a form of play could also be described in the same terms that Stewart describes humanist management: "a way of harnessing workers' sense of identity... an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement."
posted by AlsoMike at 11:01 PM on August 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've always thought the MBA bullshit was just bullshit, and how could you be trained in some general fashion that made you capable of running any company in any field?

Then I watched Fog of War about Macnamara. His description of the changes he instituted at Ford as basically a general MBA type are pretty startling. Like Ford should actually look into the kinds of cars its customers want and start manufacturing those. I guess that was general training that makes you capable of running any company.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:02 PM on August 7, 2011


jeffburdges, I suspect we might be thinking at cross-purposes a bit…

"The issue is outright access, not correct interpretation."

Well, the article was all about the incorrect interpretation and application of the data (as well as just plain fudging it), not access to it.

"Access alone will bread* diverse and productive interpretations."

Bullshit. Access + somebody interested enough to interpret the data leads to diverse interpretations. Diverse interpretations + somebody able enough to sort the productive from the non-productive lead to productive interpretations. Productive interpretations + someone interested and able enough to apply them lead to productive applications. And then you're faced with what's meant by "productive".

But access alone leads to nothing - although it may lead to something. And there's no way of telling whether that 'something' will be good, bad, indifferent, productive, or even 'correct'…

"We're currently witnessing a push against access to corporate and government information, but that pendulum will hopefully swing back the other way with a vengeance."

I agree with you - but that has nothing to do with the article or my comments.

But all this is getting away from the point of my original response to your "Geeks credit is assigned equitably" comment. It's not; far from it. It's assigned on the basis of what other geeks think is important using a restricted and narrow set of criteria, which is not the same thing - but it is the same thing as what Taylor etc. did/do.

The fact that D.E. Shaw, or 'powerful tech companies', or whoever, use narrowly-defined but objective metrics, or subjective 'cred' (dare I say "Whuffie"? ;-), or whatever, as metrics for their own purposes is ancillary to both our original comments…

[* I'll assume you meant 'breed']
posted by Pinback at 12:11 AM on August 8, 2011


I've always thought the MBA bullshit was just bullshit, and how could you be trained in some general fashion that made you capable of running any company in any field?

Then I watched Fog of War about Macnamara. His description of the changes he instituted at Ford as basically a general MBA type are pretty startling. Like Ford should actually look into the kinds of cars its customers want and start manufacturing those. I guess that was general training that makes you capable of running any company.


But apparently not any war. The lesson that I took from Fog of War was that Macnamara was smart and had access to lots of data, but apparently either wasn't smart enough or had an incomplete picture. He failed to grasp that Vietnam wasn't a problem that was well-understood and could be "solved" by throwing escalating resources at it.

The dividing line in this debate may be between those who think that any system can be adequately modelled given sufficient data (i.e McKinsey's slogan - "Anything that can be measured and be managed: and everything can be measured") and those who think that no one individual can adequately process all the relevant data.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:39 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


AlsoMike: This article makes me think there is something in scientific management that is worth rehabilitating for the left.
There's an interesting little interview here from back in 2001 with Thomas Frank, in which he discusses these kinds of issues.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:45 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


How well it works today you can judge by our current circumstances, and by the dire terms of the most optimistic forecasts.

You can't just pick one idea that's grown over the course of a century and then point to the entire world and claim that because that world is non-ideal, the idea was clearly nonsense. Our current predicament is due to a lack of regulation combined with speculative manias, it doesn't have very much to do with Taylorism.

Interestingly enough, the mid-century onwards drive to automate manufacturing means that research that incorrectly treated manufacturing workers as robots is now relevant because manufacturing work is done by actual robots.
posted by atrazine at 12:59 AM on August 8, 2011


Our current predicament is due to a lack of regulation combined with speculative manias, it doesn't have very much to do with Taylorism.

I'm sure you are correct that our present situation has a multitude of causes.

But I cannot help but feel that one of them is this: that we have constructed a society that over-values and valorizes businessmen and under-values much more socially useful activities (doctors, teachers etc.). And I think that the cult of MBAs and scientific management contributes to that.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:50 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


THE CHAIRMAN: We are not . . . dealing with horses nor singing birds, but we are dealing with men who are a part of society and for whose benefit society is organized.

SOCIALIST
posted by Miko at 6:31 AM on August 8, 2011


Haha right, wasn't there an ask me by a female programmer recently who got a "you don't fit in, you might want to look for a new job " speech from her manager because she had an iphone and not and android phone?

Can someone link to this? I can't find it.
posted by enn at 6:32 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


For most of my career, "scientific management" has been a code word for "layoffs". I have no reason to believe that will ever change.
posted by tommasz at 8:00 AM on August 8, 2011


Interestingly enough, the mid-century onwards drive to automate manufacturing means that research that incorrectly treated manufacturing workers as robots is now relevant because manufacturing work is done by actual robots.

If it's actually the case that most of that research was more or less fabricated, I think we'd probably do better with some good old fashioned engineering. It's already gotten us to robots, after all.
posted by brennen at 11:12 PM on August 8, 2011


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