Strategy – no one best way


Strategy – no one best way

Taylor’s one best way

It’s just over a hundred years since the death of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He came from humble beginnings, serving an apprenticeship at a steelworks, and was rapidly promoted through a number of jobs and levels. As he rose in seniority, he became increasingly interested in how much work could be expected from the combination of the steelworks and the steelworkers. Taylor thought there was insight to have, by dividing every task or job into small modules that could be easily analysed. He stood with a stopwatch measuring the time it took workers to do particular tasks (in increments of 1/100th of a minute), and assessing which tools were most appropriate for which task. He thought that by breaking work down in this way, observing it, analysing, the one best way could be found. In Taylor’s world, there absolutely was one best way for a task, one that could be readily taught, and then measured. Then all workers should use the one best way – and take the same time over it, too.

And in his time, there was a certain dose of truth to that. The tasks in the steelworks were well-bounded repeated manual jobs which lent themselves to being structured in this way. From these studies, Taylor developed the principles or practice of scientific management and work efficiency that became known as Taylorism – a methodology for production efficiency seen by many as the father of scientific management, and one of the first management consultants.

Taylor to process management

How much of Taylor’s legacy is valid today? Of course, there are still repeatable tasks which lend themselves to this analytical way of breaking down a task, finding the one best way, and standardising how it should be done. The discipline of process management is perhaps the way in which this best shows up today. They mostly aren’t the manual tasks which Taylor concerned himself with, but there are many activities which are well-defined and repeatable, ideally suited to process management.

Human habits

Part of the Taylor thinking gets under the skin, the mental model of one best way is very appealing, it plays to something very deep in us as human beings. As we think about our daily lives, we couldn’t handle them without good ways to do common tasks. If I had to stop and think about the best way to clean my teeth or make a shopping list, to create a way of doing those from new each time, I would be utterly stymied. Habits serve us well – so very well, in fact, that we are hard-wired to look for the silver bullet, the direct and effortless solution to a problem.

The challenge of the knowledge economy

Parts of the business and management world is so very different to this, and to the world which Taylor knew. There are many, many tasks and activities for which there is no panacea, no silver bullet, and this is inherent in the shift from the manufacturing economy to the knowledge economy. In the knowledge economy, we often do need to think about a problem from scratch, and customise our ways of thinking and working to best match the problem. And as the rate of change inside and beyond our organisations ratchets up, the context in which we are working is constantly in flux, which again presents different problems in different contexts for which the solutions cannot be standardised.

This is most pronounced in the difference between operations and strategy. Some aspects of operations – in some organisations, many aspects of operations – can be handled through managed processes. But strategy is a dynamic interplay of relationships and, critically, it is context and content specific. Even for one organisation, its strategy is unlikely to stay the same at a detailed level, because it is changing and its environment is changing, so the strategy needs to evolve to ensure that the organisation retains a good fit with its environment.

Strategy – many different ways

Earlier this month, we were in Trinidad running a series of strategy workshops with public and private sector organisations there. On the face of it, a number of the organisations had the same type of problem: a public sector organisation able and impatient to innovate and change faster than the Ministry which they reported to. But context and content were everything, and for each of them, the specific strategy which would help them move forwards was different. Many different ways, no one best way.