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18. Small business help from beyond the grave

A spooky title – are we into seances? Well, no. But just because the business guru is no longer alive does not mean there are not a number of useful lessons for small business. For instance let’s go back a long way – Frederick Winslow Taylor died in 1917; he was born in 1856. His major work, ‘The Principles of Scientific Management was published in 1911. Taylorism or Scientific Management has been quite influential and controversial over the years.

He influenced Henry Ford and the early production line businesses; his ideas encouraged the development of detailed work study (time and motion studies were still very popular methods in the 1960s and early 70s) and in his scientific management theory regarded workers as automata to be utilised to the maximum output. This later led to a backlash against the dehumanising nature of his approach – and many analyses which indicated that over time it could be counter-productive. The treatment of shop-floor workers as cogs in the wheel could result in lower rather than higher productivity, and new ideas of teams and more interesting and complex work patterns took a higher profile in management thinking.

But Taylor’s contribution was still very significant. He effectively created a new way of running a business which was analytical, which looked at what people actually did and compared minutely what was more effective; he increased the importance of pro-active management rather than ‘caretaking’ management; analysis led to re-assessment and planning of work.

This may seem all a little remote now, but in his day Taylor was a public figure on a par with many of the modern gurus – in 1914 he addressed an audience of 69,000 in New York. He is arguably the – or at least one of the few – founder(s) of management science, and it can be argued that some major trends which have swept through management thinking more recently are simple extensions of his ideas and method. For instance, the concept of ‘corporate reengineering’ which became the fashion for big business in the 1990s after the publication of James Champy and Michael Hammer’s business bestseller Reengineering the Corporation. But here we are back with big business. And Taylor did a lot of his work at the giant Bethlehem Steel Works in Pennsylvania. So what’s the relevance for the small business? I’ll think about that and get back to you in the next article!