Guest Blog: Ricardo Semler is actually a Taylorist - and here’s why

By Marlie van der Heijden, business ethicist and founder of Involve Ethics

If you have read his book Maverick!, then surely you’ll remember that Ricardo Semler is convinced that taylorism is one of those many management methods and -isms that can be thrown into the garbage. He tried them all and all of them didn’t work. Then how can I state that he IS a taylorist - he just doesn’t realize it? I’ll tell you how.

Frederick Winslow Taylor is known as the father of scientific management, with his stop watch in hand and his time studies as the wide known example of his method, that was revolutionary at the time. He developed his method, based on the scientific method, to improve efficiency. His methods are no longer needed nowadays. But, although in 20th century literature it usually does, the story of Taylor actually doesn’t stop here. Taylor wrote in his Principles of Scientific Management the real reasons he developed his method, his purpose. Now his ultimate purpose was not to increase efficiency. It was to find a method that would benefit not only employers, but employees and most importantly, consumers as well. Taylor wanted to raise life standards for everyone. This included better health, more access to healthy food and good education for the masses. He wanted to do so by establishing a knowledge base of management that enabled later generations of workers to build upon the best practices of their foregoers, rather than having to reinvent the wheel over and over again. Does this sound like a Taylor you never heard of? That can be correct.

One of the main reasons Taylor has been criticized in the way he has, is because of his own lack of formal education, and therefore, his rather rude and blunt way of formulating his ideas. I mean, if you refer to workmen as ‘gorillas’ and keep repeating you want them to become ‘first class men’ you might expect a bit of a stir. Also, and this I think is Taylor largest pitfall, he failed to emphasize the fact that his methods weren’t fixed methods. His theory was in fact, a so-called open end theory. This means that of course (as Taylor himself very well realized) we don’t use his time studies any more in our days. We don’t need to, so we went on with the next best known methods, which involved the large-scale use of machinery, high-tech and robots. The internet, and blockchain technology. All these uses of inventions have improved our efficiency in production and have increased the accessibility of luxury goods and healthy food for great parts of the population. And you know what? That is the application of scientific management in the way Taylor meant it to be!

To truly understand this we need to understand what the scientific method is. So, how does it work? Simply put, the scientific method is a way of empirically gaining observations and using our best knowledge to date in order to set up and execute experiments, the outcomes of which we can use to form preliminary conclusions to shape our acting and thinking.Okay maybe not so simply put, but it boils down to observation, trial-and-error, reflecting upon your trials, and then improving the status quo.

Taylor wanted to improve the current state of affairs and did so with a stop watch in hand at a time no one had ever done so before. It resulted in shorter work hours, mandatory breaks for the workmen, less physically burdening workloads, better health, and increased production and quality of produce.

Ricardo Semler also wanted to improve the current state of affairs and did so by trying out all the management methods he could find, before realizing he had to try something radically new. His empirically gained observations and experience taught him (gave him the best knowledge available) that the currently used methods and the present traditions didn’t deliver the desired outcome. So he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, it was just time for an upgrade of the current technology (or method). This conclusion naturally led to the setting up an experiment for a new way of working. The way Semler got to this was by trial and error: hardly any of his ideas worked out at the first try, as he faced quite a lot of opposition, especially in the beginning, and also, some of his early tries failed. However, after executing multiple experiments, constantly building on his newly gained best knowledge to date, Ricardo succeeded in establishing an improved status quo.

Would Taylor ever have guessed that democratic management would be one of the outcomes of his scientific management? Probably not in his wildest dreams. After all, Taylor was criticized in his own days as well as he was after his death. And would Ricardo Semler ever have guessed that his radically new way of management would become so popular, but at the same time, so misinterpreted in the 21st century? Well… there’s only one who knows the answer to this one. All I know is that both men have had tremendous influence in the field of management and that it is a beautiful challenge for our new generation to further improve what they have laid the foundations for: a management style that improves our own current state of affairs and that of future generations.

Thank you for reading this article. I am happy to discuss your own thoughts on this topic. My next article will be about how and why democratic management in the Semco-style is so widely misused and misinterpreted, and how you can avoid the pitfalls of that misinterpretation.

Marlie van der Heijden, Involve Ethics

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