Management consultants and the scientific approach

2009

The sins of the management consultants go all the way back to their earliest days and greatest figures. Writing in the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore traces the profession back to a 1910 meeting in a New York apartment, at which the pregnant phrase 'scientific management' was adopted to describe a new philosophy.

Its chief exponent was one Frederick W. Taylor. He insisted that by methodically analysing how work was performed and timed, the consultant could measure and then close the gap between observed performance and the optimum figures - above all, cost. Like all his great followers, Taylor was expert at turning his teaching into considerable fees.

But Leporte reports that 'Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success'. Even some of America's cleverest minds were misled.

The renowned lawyer Louis Brandeis asserted that nothing else 'seems to me to be equal to this [scientific management] in importance and hopefulness…Efficiency is the hope of democracy'. Taylor didn't attend the 1910 meeting, but his philosophy and practice dominated the talks.

The Great Crunch is the apotheosis of the Taylor philosophy. On Wall Street, algorithms became talismans. The collapse of one early result, Long-Term Capital Management, was a terrible, ignored warning.

The fall demonstrated that big brains are not the only answer and that management is about action, not just strategy. What's more, the outsider is bound to be less effective than the insider - in a good organisation.

Scientific management is still a great and good idea, with the proviso that you know its limitations as well as your own. The closer you get to the ground or shopfloor, the better and broader the potential for meaningful achievement.

What the major consultancies learned as they launched and led their commercial revolution was a lesson for themselves as much as their clients - that the higher their claims, the more opportunities they would be able to find and exploit as heirs to Frederick Taylor. It's true that problems are opportunities; but opportunities are also problems.

A true scientific manager like Andy Grove of Intel is liable to challenge higher-flown messages. Some years ago Grove discussed his approach to strategy. This undisciplined discipline is used with great reverence as the master-map for the future. But what of the present? What kind of future can you build on an uncertain today?

Grove gives the warning that "strategic plans are statements of intent; they sound like political speeches; they are abstract and usually have no concrete meaning except to management; they deal with events far in the future and thus hold little relevance to the present."

None of these four attributes or atmospheres is needed for the journey. Like witty consultants, they may be fun to have around but they can cause a heap of trouble. As Grove would suggest:

"Strategic actions are already taken or being taken and imply longer-term intent; they are concrete stages; they immediately affect people's lives; they take place in the present and therefore command immediate intention."

You should be interested passionately in what you are doing now to achieve much better outcomes in the present, the near future and thereafter.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".