Michael C Hogan

Agile Product Development & Innovation Strategy


Note to HBR, Taylorism Lives and has Evolved

I am a fan of the online Harvard Business Review. I read it daily via Flipboard and value the lessons and stories shared by its authors. However, I did not find a lot to value in a recent opinion piece entitled HBR Lives Where Taylorism Died.

The flawed thesis of the subject article is that Taylorism died, replaced by more effective management practices covered in the pages of HBR. I hate to break it to the piece’s author, but Taylorism didn’t die, rather it has evolved over the past hundred years into the modern professional discipline of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Further, HBR didn’t “reintroduce the notion of efficient process redesign.” As I will show below, that notion was introduced far earlier.

Chronology of significant events and developments in the evolution of industrial and systems engineering

Timeline: evolution of industrial and systems engineering
[Source: Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering, 1993]

Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering (Turner, Mize, Case, Nazemetz, 1993) provides an overview of the evolution of Industrial and Systems Engineering from the early work of Taylor through the contemporary contributions of Japanese Lean thinkers, which I’ve paraphrased in the paragraph that follows.

“Industrial engineering emerged as a profession as a result of the industrial revolution and the accompanying need for technically trained people who could plan, organize, and direct the operations of large complex systems.” The discipline traces it’s origins to Eli Whitney, credited with proving the value of interchangeable parts in manufacturing to enable mass production. Fredrick Taylor later pioneered the study and refinement of jobs to increase productivity. Frank Gilbreth built upon Taylor’s efforts and developed an approach for designing jobs by breaking them down into a set of defined and well understood common tasks. Lillian Gilbreth brought to the profession of Industrial Engineering “a concern for human welfare and human relations. Lillian’s contributions were widely recognized and she became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. The innovations of industrial engineers continued to influence business with the introduction of Henry Gannt‘s Gantt chart. In the 1920s, W. A. Shewhart developed the basis for modern day statistical process control. Many of Shewhart’s methods have been popularized under the Six Sigma branding popularized by Motorola. [1]

In 1968 Peter Drucker had the following to say about Industrial Engineering:

The most important step toward the “knowledge economy” was, however, scientific management–that is the systematic application of analysis and study to manual work, first pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Taylor, for the first time in history, looked at work itself as deserving the attention of an educated man. Before, work had always been taken for granted, especially by the educated. If they ever thought of it, they knew that work had been ordained–by God or by nature–and that the only way to produce more was to work more and work harder. Taylor saw that this was false. The key to producing more was to “work smarter.” The key to productivity was knowledge, not sweat. [2]

Drucker goes on to add:

[Scientific management] has raised the productivity and with it the earnings of the manual worker, and especially of the laborer, while greatly reducing his physical efforts and his hours of work. [2]

Since the 1970s, Industrial Engineering has continued to evolve. Human factors, including worker safety, is an even higher priority for modern Industrial Engineers than it was during Lillian Gilbreth’s time. The Japanese production techniques popularized under the brand of Lean have been incorporated into Industrial & Systems Engineering curriculums, emphasizing respect for people as an enabler of world-class organizations. And the profession continues to evolve as newer Systems Engineering and Systems Architecting methods are being developed to deal with the design and development of complex systems.

We even continue to see Industrial and Systems Engineering concepts in articles published by HBR, for example the recent article The False Tradeoff in Redesigning Work (11/19/2012), the 74 HBR.org articles and blog posts involving the term “lean” and the 183 HBR.org articles and blog posts involving the phrase “process improvement.”

Finally, Industrial and Systems Engineering is beginning to gain recognition in the popular consciousness. One of the celebrated business books of 2012, The Lean Startup, is grounded in the fundamentals of hypothesis testing and inventory control that emerged from IE and Taylorism. Lean and Six Sigma books continue to be best sellers. And, it’s worth mentioning that the CEO of Apple–currently the world’s most valuable company–is an industrial engineer.

Indeed, Taylorism is alive an well in 2012 and continues to evolve as academics and professionals work together to expand the capacity of human endeavor. Industrial and Systems Engineers make a difference.

[1] Turner, Wayne C. Introduction to Industrial and Systems Engineering. Third Edition. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 1993. ISBN 0-13-481789-3.

[2] Drucker, Peter. The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society. Transaction Publishers. 1992. ISBN 978-1560006183.