Winslow Taylor’s Story—The Obstacle to Future Success

A lot of what I hear business leaders worrying about is related to engagement. “We need to collaborate better” or “We need to get our customers involved”—those are the sorts of things I’ve been hearing from managers. When discussions escalate and everybody is really involved, I usually ask (when appropriate) that we all just take two steps back. Or maybe two hundred. Why? Because we need to step back and evaluate the past before we can really engage effectively with the present.

The biggest obstacle to our future success is our past success.

We have been so successful with a system based on assumptions that are not true anymore that it is really difficult for us to let go.


200 years ago, the most successful (and most prevalent) organizational structure resembled something like a collection of masters of a certain trade. These masters didn’t operate according to a process book or something that an onboarding plan told them to. There was a lot of creativity, personal preference—in other words, talent—that drove the behaviors of those folks.

Then, in 1856, a guy by the name of Frederik Winslow Taylor was born in Germantown, Philadelphia, not very far from where I am right now. The son of a Quaker, Taylor had a quite revolutionary idea. He went out and observed a number of masters—let’s say, for example, that they built chairs—and he closely observed how they built these chairs. He would write down what he saw and basically distill a best practice from his observations. For example, if a master used three coats of paint but it was all right to use just one, he would just eliminate the other two layers in his notes. He would switch around certain steps of the process because it was faster. He had created the “best practice.”

He put a scientific method above any individual master. 

Basically, he went out and told people what to do. He provided step 1, step 2, step 3, done. He split thinking and doing.

People with very little education were now able to very quickly perform tasks that had previously been the work of masters. At the time, there were thousands of people working in the fields, travelling the country from harvest to harvest. Now it was possible to pull these people into factories.  
The resulting hundredfold increase in productivity over only two generations was unprecedented. The wealth we enjoy today is built on Frederik Winslow Taylor’s ideas. 

We have now built all our intelligence into the “process,” and overall, we do not rely on individual talent today. This is a fact. And we can’t just switch back and say, “All right, everyone, please be engaged and use your creativity! Please collaborate and co-create with your customers!” 

This is something that will take a while, and I think it starts with an awareness of what the real problem is—that it is not a quick fix. It is not a problem you can solve by simply putting together a marketing or engagement campaign. It is much, much deeper.

The next time you get frustrated with low employee engagement or people not bringing their best thinking to you, step back and think about what we have done and what kind of system we have built over the last 150 years. The laptop you are working on is an asset on the balance sheet, but your best salesperson out there building valuable customer relationships is a line item in your selling expenses.

That’s where we are. The good news is that many companies are finding ways to build talent back into their rigid processes and wake the giant of human potential.

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Image(s): iStock/21016882 wateye