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Re: Wagnerism vs. Taylorism


It’s interesting that there appears to be a cyclical nature to these things. More-or-less the same, basically sensible, method for business operational improvement — carefully observe current work practices, think of them holistically and in light of the goals of the business, and then redesign work practices — keeps getting reinvented. Taylorism, “Goals and Methods”, factory statistical process control (SPC), Total Quality Management (TQM), reengineering, and so on are all just manifestations of this approach. Each is typically pioneered by innovators who have a fairly supple understanding of the often unarticulated complexity of the task. It drives clear profit gains, and many other people want to apply it. A group of experts are trained by the pioneers, who are also quite effective. There is an inevitable desire to scale up the activity and apply it as widely as possible. It becomes codified into some kind of a cookbook process that can be replicated. This process becomes a caricature of the original work, and the method is discredited by failure and ridicule.  (Seeing this phase of reengineering at several companies in the 1990s, a close friend of mine once described it as “like the Planet of the Apes, but the monkeys have taken over from the humans”.) Within a few years, some new pioneers develop some new manifestation of the approach, and the cycle begins again.

In a certain way it makes a very Hayekian point, which is that the tacit knowledge of the practitioners is crucial, because the exact components of the method that are emphasized or ignored are crucially dependent on local circumstances in ways that usually not obvious, even to the people doing it. This is why the comment about the low-skill immigrants is so relevant in Barone’s article. Taylorism, as originally practiced, probably made a lot of sense (though there is some debate about this) for certain kinds of factories at certain times in certain industries. It is a lot less relevant to most information era companies today.


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