The Wisdom Lost in the Numbers

I spent the weekend reading as I had a lot of reading to catch up on.  That happens in the summer since I spend more time doing outdoor and active activities than in the winter when I’m snowed in with little to do.  But I felt guilty having those books just sit there collecting dust so I had a crack at a few of them.  “The Sum of Our Discontent” by David Boyle was one of those books I reached for.  A wonderful book on how the use of numbers and wanting to quantify everything, has shaped society as we know it.

 

The book read much like a history book, going over many events that took place and how those events build upon each other to get where we are today.  One such event was the birth of the modern efficiency movement that is so ingrained in our daily work life that few think twice about it.  Yet back in the 1880’s when it was first coming to light, many thought it was a bad idea and frankly I see their point. 

 

The chapter that covers this time period talks about Fredrick Taylor, a young sub foreman at a steel mill that decides he knows how to make things better.  He wanted to make workers more efficient so they could get more work done faster and thus have more money and free time.  He truly believed he was helping the workers, not the bosses, that some how, using stop watches and analyzing every taste and movement to make them better and faster, was going to help all these workers.  The 1880’s in America was a recession; jobs were hard to come by.  Taylor believed in efficiency and that man should be as efficient as a machine.  So that’s what he set out to do, make men like machines.

 

His boss at the time thought he was a fool and told him so.  But let him do his experiment just to prove he was a fool and that would be the end of it, so he though.  Taylor ran out or fired most of the workers, again, during a recession.  He didn’t take any back talk or questioning by the workers, he believed a worker should only ask two questions.  Who is the person they work for?  What does that person want me to do right now?  Not, what will make my customers happy and come back for more business?  Not, what is in the best interest of the company?  No, Taylor felt that was not their job to think, only to jump when said boss said jump.  This was Taylor’s big flaw, he wanted men to be machines, not taking into account that they get colds, sore backs, need breaks, water and food, not to mention rest. 

 

Taylor went on to become a business guru; helping companies like Ford go from producing a Model T every 12 hours to every 90 minutes.  Then those same ideas entered the office, the restaurant, every sector where there is a manager and an employee.  Taylor is said to be more important that Darwin or Freud in the 20th centuries development.  The Nazi’s used his methods in the death camps.  Lenin was a fan of Taylor and wanted to create a Taylorism like factory state, Drucker called Taylor the first knowledge guru.  We still live with the evolved ideas of his.

 

Taylor really believed he was helping the workers, but he didn’t want smart workers, he really didn’t feel workers had the right to think or speak that was their rights off the clock.  It’s rather shocking really to realize that a guy, who wanted us all to be little robots, is pretty much the father of modern management.  His ideas lead to management consulting, the rise of the middle manager and endless command and control structures.

 

When I think of Taylor and his contributions to how we live today, I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, and the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Taylor’s ideas have morphed our society into one where workers don’t really have a say, much as Taylor liked it.  And the quest to quantify every little thing has taken on a life of its own and to what purpose?  If you get an MBA what do you really learn?  You learn to analyze the daylights out of anything!  Really, that’s what you learn.  But to what end?  What understanding does all this information produce?  Don’t get me wrong, analysis is good, but we have reached a point of over analysis in some areas and really what we get are junk numbers as a result that just add information but little understanding and almost no true knowledge.  Many companies analyze every little detail of customer interaction and know everything about their customer, except what they really are like and truly want.  See they analyze instead of engaging customers and developing a real relationship, that’s what is lost.

 

So when I think of Taylor’s contribution, yes, his heart may have been in the right place, but I don’t think he really thought out the impact he was creating.  We work more now, nobody really goes on vacation anymore, it’s more like telecommuting at Disneyland checking emails and reading spread sheets on your PDA while in line for the next ride.  In the end, it made work a less humane place to be, with repetitive stress syndrome.  I don’t blame Taylor, he was just a product of his time, so he did what actually anyone with his sense at that time probably would have done.  But we don’t live in that time, so what’s our excuse?  We don’t have one other than being lazy.  There are ways to get the efficiency and bring back the passion into work that has been missing since Taylor pulled out his stop watch and tried to make men into machines.  There are ways to stop producing information and start truly creating real wisdom again.

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