Bigger Is Better Is A Fundamentally Flawed Idea

Frederick Taylor is one of the greatest villains in American history.  He is the efficiency fanatic, and the author of Scientific Management,  whose name was a household word in the U.S. and Europe around the turn of the last century.  Not too many people remember him today but almost everybody does accept his principal premise as gospel, ie; that the goal of industrial (or for that matter social or governmental)  enterprises is to achieve such large scale that one can bring more resources to bear and “scientifically’ manage your business operations.   

So if your not achieving the results you want say in obtaining good intelligence prior to 9/11 what you do is merge every possible intelligence gathering function together then apply ever more consistent and well thought out rules for intelligence gathering.

Taylor’s most famous example was assembling a team of efficiency “experts” to study the large number of people shoveling at Bethlehem steel works. And study it they did.  They set hourly rates for various materials, dictated the substrate they should shovel off of, the shovels they had to use, the type of men who should be hired for shoveling.  In other words they made shoveling a science administered by “college” men specially trained to control the workers performing their assigned tasks.  And he did achieve some savings.

Yet unfortunately for Taylor’s theory (but fortunately for the human soul), economy of scale is primarily a purchasing or mechanical benefit and rarely a social one.  Real progress doesn’t come, as Frederick Taylor says he “proved”,  by getting better and better at telling people what to do, instead it comes from changing the method. 

Just like it did at Bethlehem Steel, where eventually they threw his techniques out the window and bought a steam shovel.

But here’s the key, CHANGING THE METHOD IS ALWAYS EASIER THE SMALLER AN ORGANIZATION OR THE MORE DISTRIBUTED DECISION MAKING IS IN AN ORGANIZATION.

Which is why the U.S. achieved some stunning intelligence results prior to and during WW II, like breaking the Japanese codes, predicting the Nazi/Soviet pact, pinpointing German subs in the Atlantic and so on because we were operating a potpourri of small intelligence and code breaking organizations.  Something we could do because there was no centralized Department of Defense and no centralized Central Intelligence agency just Naval Intelligence code breaking at CINCPAC fighting it’s own war, the Marine Corps doing it’s own thing in secret, the OSS fighting another war (often with the FBI who was always fighting its own war) and of course Roosevelt, that incurable dabbler, handing out “unaccountable funds” left and right to this that and the other intelligence dilettante.

But then of course, we looked at our failures instead of our successes and organized the whole thing according to Taylor’s dictum about “Scientific Management.”   Consolidated intelligence gathering and the military and choked off the initiative, loaded it down with lawyers in order to write more and more rules and wound up with well what we got. Nobody sounding the alarm prior to 9/11. 

And after 9/11 what did we do, yes consolidated further.

Because Taylor’s principal of bigger more centralized control is still widely accepted.  There’s a problem with mine safety?  Consolidate mine rule making in one huge agency with broad powers to develop specific and detailed rules.  Kids aren’t learning how to read?  We need a bigger better funded Dept. of Education.  What they still aren’t reading?   Make the Dept. bigger, bigger and bigger yet BECAUSE WE NEED MORE RESOURCES AND BETTER MORE RIGOROUSLY ENFORCED RULES.

Tom Peters wrote a couple of really excellent books about this back in the eighties which profoundly changed how many manufacturing managers think about economy of scale and ever since factories have been getting smaller or more distributed.

Somebody has got to do the same thing for government. 

Once people get the idea things will slowly begin to change.

Bigger is not better.  Central Planning never beats decentralized decision making.  If it did the old Soviet Union would have been able to supply more than 2 out of the 100 most popular consumer items available in the West.

Although it is interesting that leftists and trade unionists, who vociferously attacked Taylor when he was alive for developing ideas which, they thought, would rivet the cruel capitalistic system onto the backs of workers forever, now have no other ideas, but his.