The Specter of ‘Taylorism’

By Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA

Sean Naylor’s article, “Guard Borrows Lieutenants: Shortages Prompt Loan from Active Duty” (Army Times, Dec. 20, 2004), opens a door to larger issues that will haunt the Army. The Army is beginning to solve its personnel problem with short-term fixes that will have dire long-term consequences. It is letting the personnel bureaucrats fight the wars of today with practices from the past. Analogies with Vietnam, sure, but in ways that most fail to point out.

During Vietnam, standards in officer accessions (how we prepare individuals to become officers), leader development, promotions and attendance to military and civilian education opportunities were lowered to meet the need for “bodies” or “spare parts.” Despite piles of lessons learned from the mistakes we made in the personnel arena during Vietnam, we are doing it again!
The Army is beginning to cut corners in the area of leader development, like sending too many lieutenants to combat without the necessary training. We are robbing the retirement account (leading the Army of the future) to pay for debts incurred today.

The reason: There is a mismatch between input and output; namely, the officers are going to be punching out faster than the required number of lieutenants are getting promoted to captain and major based on the predictions by personnel ORSAs (operations research systems analysts) for the future need for majors (in some requirement that has little to do with combat, like manning large Napoleonic headquarters).

Why will the combat-saavy junior officers, if not killed or wounded, want to punch out after doing what they prepared to do? The most frequent complaint beginning to be made by the “best and brightest” of the numerous lieutenants and captains I hear from about departing is that they are fed up with being micromanaged to death in a zero defects, PowerPoint-driven culture that does not give them enough time in the field to learn the arts of soldiering, like troop command and tactical leadership. Even more so, they are fed up and insulted by the lowering standards appearing across the ranks – from whom we commission and promote.

The Army solution: balance input with output by pumping up the input - in this case by beginning to demand more from accession sources (like ROTC raising higher “mission,” but with less resources=great equation for quality), raising the percentage that just made major (97 percent) considering to cut down pin on time to major, and one of the worse decisions, sending lieutenants to a combat zone without going to Ranger school in order to fill “lieutenant slots” in battalions deploying to an insurgency war.

We do two things that is undermining the long-term health of the Army to fix today’s problems. In an era of 4th Generation War, where we are asking lieutenants to make decisions with strategic implications, decreasing their development opportunities, and the time available to learn the soldierly arts at the small unit level, is a recipe for disaster.

The Army’s solution is akin to increasing the size of the bilge pump rather than plugging the hole that is sinking the ship.

This kind of bilge also helps us to understand why the first four letters of the word “analyst” are “anal.” Why is this happening in the 21st century?

The Army still views the management of its people through the tired old eyes of Secretary of War Elihu Root and the turn-of-the-century industrial theorist, Frederick Taylor.

The Army’s plan to retain officers by promoting them faster aims to solve a structural problem by bribing people to stay – the positive incentive of faster promotions will buy their loyalty, patriotism, and the moral strength to go in harm’s way. Yet this kind of appeal to self-interest is precisely the kind of policy that has failed repeatedly in the past and will actually increase the exodus of our “best and brightest” young people – thus robbing the Army’s future. It is based on the dehumanizing assumption that our officers (and NCOs) are mindless, undifferentiated, replaceable cogs in a machine.

A little history will help us understand where this hidden assumption came from. In 1899, President McKinley picked Elihu Root as Secretary of War to bring “modern business practices” to the “backwards” War Department. Root was a highly intelligent lawyer specializing in corporate affairs. He acted as counsel to banks, railroads, and some of the great financiers of that era. Root’s approach to reforming the American military was to insert the ideas of management science then in vogue into the Army’s ossified decision-making process. His wanted the Army to run like a modern large corporation (sounds familiar?).

To this end, Root took Progressive ideas in personnel management – ideas such as social Darwinism – and applied them to the Army’s personnel management. This approach should not be surprising. Root was a product of the big corporations that dominated the Progressive era and would soon dominate the U.S. government.

Root was also a disciple of the management theories propounded by Frederick Taylor. He believed that Taylor’s theories could used to make the military more efficient and therefore better.

Fredrick Taylor is one of the intellectual fathers of the modern industrial production system. Perhaps his greatest contribution to production efficiency was to break down complex production tasks into a sequence of simple, standardized steps. This permitted him to design a standardized mass production line around a management system that classified work into standard tasks and workers into standard specialties. This combination established work standards and the people who were trained to these standards became interchangeable cogs in the machine. This greatly simplified personnel management in a vast industrial enterprise.

To be sure, Taylorism transformed industrial production, but it also had a dark side: Taylorism treated people as unthinking cogs in a machine. By necessity, these people had to accept a social system based on a coercive pattern of dominance and subordinance and centralized control from the top. Every action and every decision made in the organization was spelled out in the name of efficiency. In theory, the entire regimen flowed from the brain of one individual at the top of the hierarchy.

A complimentary management dogma also emerged during the Progressive Era. This was the theory of “Ethical Egoism,” which asserted that all people are motivated solely by self-interest. By extension, all people would respond predictably to a variety of positive incentives (money, pleasure, advancement, distinction, power, luxurious prestige goods, and amenities) or negative incentives (which took the primary form of a fear of losing the positive benefits, but also outright punishment and pain).

Easier accessions, faster promotions, no obligation to attend schools like Ranger and quicker pay raises are fully consistent with this theory of human behavior.

Taken together, the idea that people are interchangeable cogs in a machine and the idea that self-interest is the only significant motivator of behavior help explain why the Army thinks that increasing its “production” of lieutenants, cutting out necessary training for young leaders, and reducing the promotion time to major will solve its statistical readiness issues with deploying units, meet near-term requirements mandated by the Army and Congress for field grades, and solve potential retention problems.

The ideas of Taylor and Root dominated management science and war department circles a century ago, but their ghosts are haunting the Army’s Human Resources command and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel staff. Moreover, the ghosts of Taylor and Root will continue to haunt the Army’s personnel managers as long as Congress shows no interest in rooting out causes of our personnel crisis.

But Congress and the press are blinded by the sterile promises of another techno-centric analogy – the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) – which is based on the idea that war is a mechanistic process and that machines are the true source of military prowess as U.S. opponents stand in the open and let us kill them all day. It was the RMA Army that we went to war with Iraq.
The RMA is the specter of Root and Taylor that haunts the Pentagon.

I know there are dangers of reasoning by analogy. Used properly, analogies are powerful reasoning devices because they unleash the genius of imagination and creativity, Einstein’s thought experiments being cases in point. But analogies are also very dangerous, because they simplify complex problems and capture our imaginations. Used improperly, they shackle the mind and take it off the cliff.

Believing that the Army is like a business or that good business practices will solve military problems are examples of misplaced analogies that take its leaders off the cliff. Effective business practices are often very different from effective military practices. This is particularly true in the area of personnel policies, where the idea of soldierly virtue embodies the ethos of self-sacrifice, and where, as Napoleon said, the moral is to the material as three to one.

I also trust and believe in the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker. General Schoomaker boldly took on the personnel bureaucrats and stopped change of commands in combat theaters in November 2003. He also is bravely pushing forward trying to unit man and stabilize in time of war. I have confidence that he can solve this problem by exorcise the ghosts of Root and Taylor from Human Resources Command and the staffs of DCSPER, so the Army has good leaders to continue to lead it in the 21st century after Iraq.

Contributing Editor Maj. Donald Vandergriff is the author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (Presidio Press). He is retiring next summer following a 23-year career in the Marines and the Army, including “out of the box” service as a personnel reform expert who has consulted with congressional, Army and DoD leaders, as well Army Task forces and think-tanks that dealt with Transformation issues on personnel reform. He is currently writing his next book, Raising the Bar: Evolving ROTC with the changing Face of War. He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net.

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