Organizational systems and their Taylorist origin

In this chapter, we will talk about the Taylorist system or Taylorism. In its origin, this organizational system concept brought with it high increases in productivity in the industry in general and also a standardized way of organizing organizations. It has been the most widespread organizational model for decades.

From the origin of Taylorism to today there have been several changes. The first and most important is the technological evolution. At the beginning, the work of the artisans or trade masters was dissected and simplified so that it could be executed by people without qualification, through a small training.

Taylorist hierarchical structure

The design of jobs or manufacturing and assembly lines based on simple operations brought with it great increases in productivity. For this, three figures were necessary: the designer, the operator and the foreman, and the concepts they represent.

These three figures require a system of government where a key element is that both the designer, mainly, and the foreman, know better than the operator his own work. The designer designs, the foreman gives orders, the operator obeys. Back then, this system of government was possible and surely necessary.

As time went by since the origin of Taylorism, organizations began to grow in size and needs. Their dissection in specialties remains a common form of government. Therefore, most of the jobs, not only manufacturing ones, are treated in the same way. Functional departments are created with the designer, foreman and operator’s concepts.

As organizations grow, coordination is increasingly necessary, but without getting away from the concept designer, foreman and operator. Therefore, also the creation of functional departments and the coordination needs between them.

As technological progress occurs, the organizations’ requirements become more complex. The growth of organizations, the implementation in different countries, the specific requirements of each sector, the regulations or government regulations of mandatory compliance, the normalization of aspects in the economy and industry, international regulations, etc. bring complexity to government systems. Apart from all this, we must add the technological progress in the design and development of products, and the increasing sophistication of production processes, introducing this fact into greater complexity as well.

To govern this growing complexity, the concept designer, foreman and operator is still mainly in force. Departmentalization is a fairly widespread form of government. Organizations design business models and strategies to achieve objectives, and even achieve and surpass them in many cases. Organizations grow and develop based on the Taylorist system.

However, technological progress keeps introducing complexity. At the end of the twentieth century, during the two or three last decades, mainly, situations arose where an operator (not only from the manufacturing point of view, but in many other functions) can have a knowledge far superior to that of the designer and the foreman in certain determined aspects.

Before continuing developing this chapter, a note. Organizational systems are not an end in themselves. An organizational system is a means to achieve OBJECTIVES (KPI), through STRATEGIES. The efficiency and effectiveness obtained from the organizational systems will help, at least partially, the achievement of an organization’s objectives. The Taylorist system has been, since its inception and until the beginning of this century, the predominant form in most for-profit organizations, and in many non-profit organizations as well.

There are other emerging organizational systems that have an evolution or change from the Taylorist system, as will be seen in post  Organizational systems and their evolution‘.

Do not forget that organizations operate in a market, environment or circumstance and compete against other actors or even against themselves. This competition can put at stake the survival of an organization and even the people’s professional career, with all its implications. Hence the importance of the organizational system and the ability to evolve it in search of levels of efficiency and effectiveness that guarantee survival. Internal element 200 of the WITORG Guide refers to the capacity of an organization to survive over time. The way many organizations have managed to survive in their environment has been by using a Taylorist concept for their organizational system.

Looking at the following image, how should the organizational system be considered? It is a question to meditate on.

Organizational design - Evolution needs for survival
Organizational systems, organizational design, Taylorism, hierarchy, unidirectional information.

Can using a Taylorist organizational system still be enough to keep on surviving? The analysis of other alternatives and the search for opportunities for improvement is part of the continuous improvement. And the improvement or evolution of an organizational system in a world of complexity and increasing competition began to be necessary a few decades ago.


Frederick Taylor 1856-1915

In case the reader considers it necessary, two sources are presented where to deepen on the Taylorism, (1) and (2). Although this source is not the most complete, it provides enough knowledge to understand the importance and dimension of the Taylorist concept.

Frederick Taylor, 1856-1915, in his work Principles of Scientific Management (1911) proposed a system of rational work organization as an integral organizational system for industry. Since that beginning, society and industry have evolved significantly. This system, although still in full force, if it does not evolve to the new circumstances, it can endanger the survival of any organization.

I. Specialized workers versus artisans in Taylorism

When Frederick Taylor’s system of rational work organization was conceptualized, the operations and work to be done were less complex than at present. They were simple operations executed by operators where high knowledge or training was not required. The artisan’s work had been dissected in simple operations in order to be executed efficiently. The designer/engineer designed the operations, the operators executed them, and the figure of the foreman or supervisor was implemented, whose mission was to control the operators’ performance.

The evolution of technology means that today many jobs are not simple. The so-called ‘operators’ have become skilled workers with an important academic preparation and with real experience extended over time before being able to perform autonomously in many jobs. In many cases they could not be replaced with guarantees, due to the training and necessary coaching by a new operator.

II. Departmentalization in Taylorism

The organizations’ departmentalization usually involves a distribution and consolidation of power within them. When we talk about power, we refer to the power and people’s status within organizations. The creation of departments within the Taylorist system is one of the organizational pillars. When we refer to departments, we refer to the classical pyramidal organization by functional areas.

Hierarchical organizational structure and unidirectional information flows
Classical departmental organizational structure. Taylorism, taylorian organization.

Once a department has been created, it will be directed by a person in charge and will have a team of people with an assigned role. When the environment changes and an organizational restructuring is required, it is likely that someone in charge of a department may see his power quota in the organization endangered. And if any of the managers feel that he loses power within the organization, it is common to observe frictions regarding the changes to be made, and not only those responsible for the department will show resistance, but also other members who sense a loss of status or of power.

‘The local optima generally do not lead to the achievement of global optima’, this classic saying is a reality of the departmental world. The local optima and its persecution, plus the human nature in the maintenance of power, lead to great losses of efficiency in the organizational functioning.

III. Very hierarchical structures and short-circuits in communication systems within Taylorism

The growth of organizations has been accompanied by an increase in supervision levels. The coordination of a complex supervision structure results in distortions of information through its different levels. The information is misrepresented, and the original messages or orders lose their first objective as they go through the departmental chain of command. In addition, in some cases the unidirectional transfer of information further aggravates this circumstance.

IV. Consequences of the Taylorist system

People in any Taylorist organization tend to perceive, to a greater or lesser extent, the following symptoms:

  • Departmental rigidity against change.
  • Decision-making process not defined when one issue affects two departments at a time.
  • Bureaucracy.
  • Lack of compromise.
  • Endless meetings without efficiency or effectiveness.
  • Paralysis by analysis.
  • Politics and particular interests within organizations.
  • Prioritization of objectives by personal or departmental interests with respect to global objectives.
  • Lack of transparency between departments.
  • Lack of direct collaboration between members of different departments.

Evolution of the organizational systems based on Taylorism

For a few years now, organizations have worked to evolve their Taylorist systems. It is usual to be certified or evaluated in standards such as ISO 9001, EFQM and several TQM. These standards, even if an organization has a pronounced Taylorist way, include process management and seek to focus on business processes with a philosophy of continuous improvement. However, they do not completely avoid the symptoms seen in point IV.

These situations are due to the fact that Taylorism is positioned at a deep level and envelops in itself the management systems ISO 9000, EFQM, TQM, etc. This does not mean that through the implementation of management systems based on the said standards great progress has not achieved. It is intended to show the great opportunities for improvement in the fact of destayloring the organizational systems based on that concept, not from a changing point of view, but from the evolution, thinking about the continuous improvement as a necessity and, above all, an ability to be able to survive in increasingly complex environments.

On the web and in this post,  you can find more information on evolved organizational systems.

Information systems – Technological evolution

Nowadays, and for some decades already, the technological advance has allowed:

  • Bidirectional communication systems: social networks, social networks within an organization, blogs, forums and others.
  • Simpler databases to use and more powerful information exploitation tools, where the concept of self-learning and self-knowledge takes on another dimension.
  • Very high communication speeds.

Even so, it seems that many traditional organizations are having trouble adapting to this new technological reality. Meanwhile, emerging organizations have devised changes in business models based on these technologies. And in some cases, organizations that are no longer so emerging have managed to eliminate their former competitors from the market.

Organizations with Taylorist-oriented organizational systems continue to use Taylor-minded information systems as a means of unilateral communication and control. A clear example are the ERP, which have been in the world for a few decades. However, its use designed from a Taylorist concept implies not achieving acceptable levels of efficiency. This is one more reason to review an organizational system and ask about the cause of the difficulty to incorporate new technologies.

To deepen the relationship between technological progress and Taylorism, see ‘C.Systems‘ and ‘Pyramid of automation and industry 4.0‘.

Organizational systems and business models

Recently, there have been changes in very important business models in some sectors. New technologies, new forms of relationship, P2P as an example, and other reasons are a fundamental part of these changes. Hence, and in many cases, it has been fundamental for an organization to visualize its business from a non-departmental perspective. The new approach is based on the design of business process management (‘300. Process management’) and later on an organizational design focused on managing them. This surely has implied a departure from the classic concepts of Taylorism.

Below are sectors and business models to reflect on Taylorism:

  • The great traditional industry will continue to operate in a Taylorist way in the following years (automobile, aeronautics, energy, food industry, etc.). They are industries with scale economies, complexity in their development systems, complexity in their production/logistics systems and in need for a clear chain of command. WITORG believes that the Taylorist essence will clearly prevail, although part of these organizations can be worked on in a less Taylorist way.
  • Record, audio-visual and publishing industries. Deep changes are taking place in these business models. Technology has provided marketing and distribution solutions until not long ago. The lobbies of these sectors pressure the governments to maintain the business models as they were, but, even if they temporarily stop the progress of the new business models, I think that no one doubts the need for new ways of thinking and organizing.
  • Franchising. Headquarters where optimized products/services and management systems are designed, to be able to supply those products or services. Once the model has been tested and verified, the headquarter or franchisor will look for franchisees (investors/workers) or open own franchises to expand the business. There is a headquarter that continues to develop products, services and an organizational system and headquarters that exploit the business. In many cases the franchises will have an investor. In this way, there is a network structure where both the headquarter and the franchises are involved at 100% in business development. The responsibility for the results is distributed in comparison with a classic Taylorist structure.
  • Affiliate marketing: I mean organizations where you work with independent structures by establishing agreements. We could work in organizations with different owners of, for example, design, manufacturing, logistics and commercial or marketing. Four organizations, in this case independent, that establish P2P relationships, or others, with a clear approach of mutual benefit.
      • At this point we can see P2P networks, where agreements are established between equals.
      • Networks belonging to a company, Facebook for example. The network belongs to an owner and the people and organizations that participate in the network do so to get some kind of benefit. The network’s owner will also have his business model in relation to the people or organizations that get in contact with each other.
  • 3D printers. As 3D printers and the materials used by them evolve, personalization (short series) of the product will be needed and scale economies do not condition costs to other manufacturing systems. It will also present business opportunities with organizational configurations more like those of the franchises or those referred to in the previous point as ‘marketing affiliates’.
  • New forms of citizen organization. In different parts of the world, thanks to new technologies, people have organized themselves to face different types of conflicts. This will be more usual and we will see important changes in how political organizations and other social organizations are structured.

Some questions about your organizational system:

  • What does the reader think about the organizational system (s) where he/she participates?
  • Does the reader work in a departmental organization?
  • How does the information flow in the reader’s organization? Unidirectional? Bidirectional?
  • How is communication with your environment? Is it bidirectional?
  • Does the reader consider that new technologies do not bring great benefits to his organizational system?
  • Does the reader suffer from any of the Taylorist flaws presented in this chapter?
  • Is the reader involved in the evolution of the organizational system where he works?

If the answers to the questions asked are not to your liking, do not be alarmed, changes require time; the important thing is to start the evolution as soon as possible. Organizational changes are not immediate, require important concept changes and the conviction to involve at least an important part of an organization’s people.

Adapting to a changing world and continuing to survive will require more and more an organizational system that is aware of its own reality and capable of evolving in the process of adapting to the environment.

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