Posted by: JC Gatlin | February 14, 2010

When in doubt, Shoot it Out: Lean vs. Taylorism

Dinner with the Lean Consultant

A few weeks ago, over dinner, one of our lean consultants asked me to define lean homebuilding. “What exactly does lean mean?” he asked.

“It’s improving efficiency and increasing value by removing waste from the home building system,” I answered. “Basically, creating more value with less work.”

His reply was cryptic. “That’s part of it,” he said.

“Okay… what am I missing?”

“Respect for the people. Or, more specifically, the worker.”

I bit my lower lip, trying to wrap my head around that one. “I’ve never really understood what respect has to do with lean? Respect for the people is kind of like, ‘Do unto others…’ or ‘If you can’t say something nice…” I mean, being professional is being respectful, right? Doesn’t it go without saying?”

“Not at all,” he explained. “Are you familiar with Taylorism?”

I shook my head.

He smiled. “Look up Taylorism, understand the difference, and then let’s talk again.”


Scientific Management

That night, I surfed the Internet reading about F.W. Taylor, an American mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency in the late 1800s. He wrote the Principles of Scientific Management, which introduced factories to such modern concepts as standardized work methods based on scientific study.  

Taylor believed that management could be formulated as an academic discipline. If management implemented standardized work methods among a cooperative and trained workforce, the factory could improve speed and efficiency. However, workers were supposedly incapable of understanding the business needs or the mechanics and logistics of what they were doing. Therefore, planning and standardizing work methods rested with management alone.


Those Who Think and Those Who Do

The next afternoon, I called our lean consultant.

“So what have you learned?” he asked me.

“Well, both Lean and Scientific Management seek to increase value through efficiency. Both implement standardized work methods,” I answered. “Obviously the philosophies diverge at the involvement of the person actually doing the work.”

“And why is that?”

“Because Taylorism is kind of an exaggerated divide between those who think and those who do,” I said. “There’s a lack of respect for the input of the worker.”

“It’s not exaggerated,” the consultant answered. “Your company, as almost every business in the country, is built on the Taylor model; even worse, so are your heads. With your bosses doing the thinking while operations carries out the command, you’re convinced that this is the right way to run a business. For you, the essence of management is getting the ideas out of the brains of the Executive Team and into the hands of your Production Managers, Construction Managers and Sales Professionals.”

“But we’re changing,” I countered. “We don’t have bosses; we have…”

He cut me off mid-sentence. “Going lean is a big, big cultural change and it will take time.”

“I know, I know… it takes time,” I said, getting frustrated. “Listen, the point of my call was to tell you that I’m ready to delve into Taylorism. When can you meet me?”

“I’m available tomorrow, if you’d like.”

“Great, why don’t you come up to the office here and…”

He cut me off again. “No, no more meetings in the office.”

I hesitated. “Okay. Let’s meet for lunch then.”

“Meeting for lunch or dinner just proves my point that you don’t understand Lean and your head’s still stuck in the Taylor model.”

“All right then, where would you like to meet?”

“Give me directions to one of your communities with homes under construction and I will show you the difference between Lean and Taylorism.”


The Difference

I met our consultant in a neighborhood with several homes under construction. We walked a couple of the jobsites, then moved down the street toward a cul-de-sac of vacant lots for sale. There we continued our conversation.

“I don’t doubt that F W Taylor made a major contribution to the advancement of management thinking along with many others,” the consultant said. “And perhaps the term ‘Taylorism’ is an unfair legacy, but it is a convenient one for what the Lean movement is trying to change. The Lean movement is unraveling over a century of, ‘I think, you do.’”

I shook my head. “But our company Presidents came up through the ranks. They were in operations at one time; they know the building and selling process better than anyone.”

The consultant paused. “Better than anyone? You’re telling me they understand today’s homebuyer better than the Sales Professional selling in this community and the Construction Professional building in this community?”

We stopped walking at the mouth of the cul-de-sac. Every lot had a sign posted in the dirt with the words “AVAILABLE” printed on it. The consultant pointed towards them.

“The Sales Professional here said that all the Available signs in the neighborhood gives the impression that sales are slow and raises questions in prospect’s minds about just how adversely the company has been affected by the down economy. But the President said that he wants every available lot to have a company sign posted on it.”

I looked over at the cul-de-sac and at the sea of company signs standing amid the piles of dirt and growing grass. Every lot had a sign posted on it and there must have been at least 12 of them in a row. The consultant continued.

“A century plus change is long enough to realize there is a radically different way of leading an organization. So the key question is why leaders cannot or will not change their spots.”

I thought his question was rhetoric, but he waited for me to respond. I stuttered as my brain searched for an answer. “Because…” I started. “Because it’s what we’re comfortable with.”

We began walking toward a home under construction. “It’s easier for management to command and control. It’s easier for operations to follow than think for themselves,” I continued.

“But the familiar and the easy, Taylor’s Scientific Management, strips the company of its competitive edge,” he countered. “This is the Gemba. This is where standards are improved and problems are solved, not at the office or the conference room or over dinner in a nice restaurant.”

We stopped walking at a jobsite and stood next to a sold sign erected near the curb. Two feet away was a blue port-a-john. There was red graffiti scribbled on the outer wall.

“For any business, and especially a home builder, a clear focus on the customer and his or her perceptions of VALUE is fundamental. Remember, like you and me, these perceptions keep changing, and changing quickly. It’s operations – your production planners, construction managers and sales professionals – who can stay in touch with those changes. And a company whose standards are improved by those implementing those standards will race out ahead of its competition and create opportunity for everyone.”

“It’s really that simple?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It really is that simple.”

© February 2010 Homebuilding Partners, Inc.   twitter-logo



  1. Best yet JC. Phenominal exercise in “Taylorism.”

    We try diligently to remove this “culture” form our day-to-day live but it lives everywhere in our society. It lives with our Building Partners, Homeowners, mortgage companies, realtors, etc. The only way to break down this socially accepted wall is to fully endow those in the field with the power to change this. It’s allowing Sales Professionals and CP’s to “own” their enviroment and hold their results against the scrutiny of our foundations. It’s allowing them to make decisions, good and bad; for the benefit of understanding their role from the both the 10,000 ft view as well as their daily routines.

    As the Consultant said, Lean is a transformation that we must follow daily. We must examine ourselves against the dangers of “Taylorism” and strive to help those we partner with change as well.

  2. JC,

    Excellent post and artwork!

    I think that you captured the elitism and lack of humility that many “leaders” consciously or unconsciously espouse. They often swear up and down that they “get” lean, but they really don’t. Taylorists don’t implement lean with people, they do it to them. Accordingly, they never successfully transform the culture.

    Just do me a favor and go easy on the Star Wars art. I’m a little sensitive to it…

    • Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate all the comments you’ve left in the past. However, I couldn’t figure out why you would be sensitive to the Star Wars art. And then I noticed your name…. I’m just glad you could tell it was Yoda.

  3. […] more here: When in doubt, Shoot it Out: Lean vs. Taylorism « Lean Homebuilding Share and […]

  4. Even I don’t have an idea about Taylorism!!lol!!!I guess I’ll try surf in the net now after this comment of mine for me to understand and know what taylorism really mean!!

  5. Yes when the process is applied correctly it achieves value for ALL and a more streamlined process until perfect, but its getting all people in the chain onboard, with the correct mind set and DOING the process correctly and efficiently. PS loving the artwork / graphics!

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