Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor was an American engineer from Philadelphia whose studies in the early 20th century had great influence on American industrial processes. His Principles of Scientific Management focused process standardization, systematic training and the definition of roles and responsibilities. It led to the term Taylorism.

Henry Ford’s Assembly Line

One of the few Americans to focus on processes was Henry Ford. Born in Michigan in 1863 Ford began an apprenticeship as a machinist at the age of 16, and in 1891 he was hired as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. Five years later, he constructed his first model of a horseless carriage, which he called the Ford Quadricycle. In 1903, Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company, and soon began selling the Model A.

But Ford’s legacy was less in automobile design, and more in his manufacturing processes. Between his assembly line, which allowed cars to be assembled quickly with standardized parts, and his decision to add small amounts of vanadium to his steel, which made the steel production process much easier (not to mention resulted in stronger and more durable steel), Ford revolutionized the way that cars were produced, allowing them to be produced quickly and cheaply – which in turn allowed them to be sold in large numbers at a low price.

Optimum pairings

In one episode of the American television show Community, when eight people have to divide into partners, they first divide without considering any variables or long-term consequences. Shortly afterwards, however, they are so annoyed with their imperfectly chosen lab partners, that they decide to find a way to be in their optimum pairings.

This leads to them spending all night, and most of the following day, trying to decide what those optimum pairings are. They try several different systems to find new partners, including dividing by hair-color/gender/race, old/young, highest/lowest GPAs, and finally by rating each other then pairing the most popular with the least popular, etc.

After a failed attempt to implement the rating system, the 8 people succumb to fighting, angry at each other for the rankings they received. Finally, more than 12 hours after beginning the optimization process, the characters realize that their class is about to start, but none of them have done their work. 

They go to class, and the teacher is so angry with them for not doing their work, and not even knowing who their partners are, that he forces 7 out of the 8 “partners” to all share one set of lab equipment, while the rest of the class no longer has to share.

Skinning cats and Westward Ho!

There is a popular American phrase which states “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” This phrase is used to express that there are multiple processes which produce the same result, and that as long as the result is achieved, the approach taken does not matter how. 

It was first used in 1840 by American humorist Seba Smith in The Money Diggers, in which Smith wrote: “There are more ways than one to skin a cat, so are there more ways than one of digging for money.”

This phrase was (and still is) so popular that it inspired many variations. In 1855, Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! used the phrase “There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream.” Many other popular variations include killing cats (and sometimes dogs) by hanging, choking with butter, and choking with pudding.

The phrase has also appeared in many American books, including Mark Twain’s 1889 book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the author wrote “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat.”

Adam Smith and the division of labor

Adam Smith’s understanding of a process – in the sense of division of labor – can be read in his famous statement about how a pin is producted:

”One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head: to make the head requires two or three distinct operations: to put it on is a particular business, to whiten the pins is another … and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which in some manufactories are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometime perform two or three of them.”

Books about process

For “business processes and procedures” amazon(dot)com returned 1,800 titles. “business process management” yielded 26,000 books. 

And “business processes” led to over 490,000 book titles.

Four hundred and ninety thousand. That’s a lot of books. Does this mean than Americans consider internal processes critical to the success of companies?

William Edwards Deming

William Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was an American statistician and physicist, as well as a pioneer in the field of quality management. In the 1940’s he developed the process-oriented perspective of business activities, which were later introduced into various tutorials on quality management.

However, for many years Deming’s discoveries received very little attention in the U.S. Not so in Japan. There his insights were of great interest to leading industry managers. Why? The explanation given is that in the U.S. a maximization of production volume was the primary focus of industry following the worldwide reduction of production capacity following WWII.

This was possible to do without problem in the un-damaged USA. War-torn Japan, however, had limited resources for production, which pulled the optimization of processes into the foreground.

Deming’s story is initially a comparison between the U.S. and Japan. Yet the reasons why Japan’s industries became so process-oriented surely provide insight as to how Germany became to be so process-focused as well.

Listen to the first 3.5 minutes of Steve Jobs:

Purpose of processes

Procedures, policies, guidelines, compliance, and other types of structure. In the end, however, most business cultures would agree that the purpose of processes and procedures is to structure how the work should be done, and allow for repeatability, consistency, and quality control.

Processes as a success factor: If asked which are the key success factors in any enterprise most Americans would name: market/customer orientation, innovation, speed, price, service. Seldom, if ever, would they cite internal business processes.

If American customers were asked which factors are key to them when choosing a product or service they would name, among others, value and service. Value is the relationship between quality and price. It would never occur to them to say the internal business processes of the company whose product or service they are purchasing (or workmanship).

In other words, although American companies have many processes and procedures, Americans are not inclined to believe that these will ensure success.

Process procedure

Process: Progress, advance; something going on; a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result; a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; the whole course of proceedings in a legal action. Middle English proces, from Anglo-French procés, from Latin processus.

Procedure: A particular way of accomplishing something or of acting; a series of steps followed in a regular definite order; a set of instructions for a computer that has a name by which it can be called into action; a traditional or established way of doing things. French procédure.

Process or procedure: Americans define a procedure simply as a subset of a process. A procedure describes how one executes a specific task within a process. Again, the what and the how are spelled out clearly. American procedures typically have the following elements: purpose and application, individual steps, parties responsible, and the documentation, so that the individual actions taken can be accessed at a later time.

Americans draw a clear line between a process and a procedure. A process describes broadly what an organization, group, small team or individual team member needs to do. A procedure describes not only a specific task within that overall process, but also how that task is to be executed.

An American procedure can be formulated broadly or narrowly. A broad formulation allows for some interpretation and creativity in executing a procedure. A narrow procedure description seeks to avoid interpretation. One should stick to the procedure strictly.

Processes provide clarity

Processes provide clarity. They allow employees to concentrate on core activities. They lead to cost reductions by identifying and eliminating unnecessary work steps. Thinking in terms of processes – how the work should be done – strengthens conscientious work and allows for quality control.

Well documented processes are critical for orienting new employees. Processes make transparent, make understandable, each and every segment of complex work methods. They are the basis for optimization, for reducing mistakes, for root cause analysis of systemic errors. All of these benefits lead to increased product quality. Work processes, however, must be understood and accepted by those doing the actual work.

In Germany it is critical that processes do not take on the character of laws, but instead remain guidelines. German workers expect a certain level of freedom in terms of how they perform their daily tasks. Processes should not become a kind of straightjacket.