Management: Timeless Concepts From The 40s!

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar August 29, 2020

These days it is easy to find organization models that show what human-centric design in the workplace looks like. Our Bucket List features plenty of examples. In last century, however, it was a different story. Earlier this week I shared some radical management tips from the Sixties. This post goes back even further, to the late 1940s. Yes, some radical concepts go back to the post-war years. Will they finally find mainstream adoption?

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Post-war years

In the post-war period, workplaces were mechanized en-masse on the back of the industrial age. It was also when hierarchies and ‘scientific management’ started to increasingly influence the workplace.

Companies became organized like assembly lines. They encouraged specializations with clearly-defined job descriptions, associated responsibilities and rewards.

Large organizations became organized with multiple ranks. Bosses were piled on even more bosses. All this was designed with subtle differences in power, control, and rewards for each.

As such, the 40s was a time when many dehumanizing work practices were intensified.

Eric Trist

But even in those days, there was light in the darkness. Humanizing ideas about management had been around for a while. Mary Parker Follett made the people-first case already back in the 1920s, so did Elton Mayo at Harvard.

But also in the post-war period there was a small group of academics that wanted to build a more humane and productive way of managing that was more appropriate to the new post-war era.

Think about Peter Drucker at NYU, Abraham Maslow at Brooklyn College and Douglas McGregor at MIT. And there was the British scientist called Eric Trist.

Trist story is inspiring. He might be one of the first people to name and advocate the characteristics and benefits of human-centric ways of working. It all started when he stumbled into humanized work practices in an unexpected place.

As a member of the Tavistock Institute, he had began to study a British coal mine at Haighmoor. Why? Because in this mine employees were truly engaged, and absenteeism was exceptionally low. Plus the mine was safer, and more productive than any other mine in the country.

Some radical management concepts go back to the post-war years. Will they finally find mainstream adoption?
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Trist soon found out that the way of organizing there was a world away from a standard command-and-control set up. Like many other organizations, in the post-war years most British coal mines had been turned into assembly-line types of organizations.

Convention dictated the miners should work in shifts and only perform a small part of the entire extraction process. No single team had end-to-end responsibility for the product they produced. Neither were they paid for their productivity.

Moreover, decision-making was increasingly separated from the action, in this case from the miners, who were working far away in the mines. This meant that decision-makers were removed from the complex underground conditions the miners experienced.

Haighmoor's timeless concepts

Haighmoor was different. There, no assembly-line thinking was to be found. Instead, Trist stumbled into some timeless management concepts (as described by Art Kleiner in 'The Age of Heretics') that are still regarded as radical today.

Network of teams

Trist found that Haighmoor was not organized as a machine with interchangeable parts. Instead, the miners organized themselves into a network of autonomous teams. And, yes, they organized these themselves.

This was like the way miners organized before mines were mechanized. Back then, they had organized themselves in small groups that regulated their own affairs, with a minimum of supervison.

Similarly at Haighmoor, miners allocated themselves to teams, tasks, and shifts. There were supervisors, but they did not monitor, enforce, or reward miners for simple task execution. Miners were recognised for 'cycle completion': meaning being jointly responsible for the whole extraction process.

Team roles

Each miner at Haighmoor could handle a half-dozen jobs. That meant each could take on multiple team roles. Thus all teams were multidisciplinary. Any group could, usually, handle any job that needed to be done.

This meant the miners could take over work where teams from the earlier shift had left it. This enabled flexibility and continuity between shifts.

Plus, the miners took care of many ‘managerial’ tasks as well. They selected new team mates, monitored work, and even took care of rewards.

End-to-end responsibility

The miners not only ran the mining job. They also took care of selling the coal they mined. Thus the miners genuinely enjoyed end-to-end responsibility for the whole extraction process. They were responsible for the product they produced.

In fact, they did negotiate the price of their mined coal (based on tonnage per cycle) directly with their management. The amount the miners eventually received as result of these negotiations was shared amongst all members of the group.

They set up a reward policy based on a basic wage and a bonus linked to productivity of the group throughout the extraction cycle, rather than a single shift.

A keen sense of responsibility for team performance, and a matching reward policy, meant the miners had no incentives to cut corners on maintenance or safety. If they did, they would only disadvantage themselves and their colleagues.

Plus, because the miners could influence their own work, they continuously innovated. Which meant teams were able to deal better with the uncertainties and complexities of underground work.

Management: Timeless Concepts From The 40s!
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Inspired by Haighmoor, Trist and his colleagues, especially Australian scientist Fred Emery, started to call these organizations ecosystems (long before this became popular). Indeed, they believed that organizations should be regarded as analogues of ecosystems, subject to the same sorts of rules and relationsips as in nature.

They began advocating for an alternative way of organizing, which they described technically: 'socio-technical systems', 'open systems', and 'industrial democracies' are examples.

In these open systems, or industrial democracies, control rested with people at the front-line. Autonomous teams enjoyed end-to-end responsibility for the product or service they provided. If they found a way to improve their work, they could do that without any bureaucratic posturing.

Teams would have the power and the incentive to perfect their performance as they would be rewarded in ways that touched not only their pride but also their wallets.

These systems were not without leaders. Indeed, leaders played a key role. They would not be bossing others around but supporting them and making sure they had whatever they needed. Leaders also made sure information was shared so everyone understood how the organization was performing.

No mainstream adoption (yet)

These ideas of Trist and friends were revolutionary. Sadly, they were not adopted by the mainstream, and in the decades that followed, the normal pyramid structures did not disappear.

It is not that people did not try, or believe that pyramids would not be replaced by more human-centric models. In the post war-years, for example, it was expected that the tsunami of newly arrived knowledge workers would soon demand the removal of old authoritarian working methods. But this clearly did not happen.

Then, in the 1970s, with the introduction of the first IT tools, similar expectations appeared. Wouldn't the new IT tools (enabling instant access to all the information an employee needed to make the right decision) end hierarchical pyramids? No, they did not.

Now, in our digital world, similar hopes arise. Is it finally time for mainstream adoption of Trist's timeless ideas? Time will tell.

Innovative ideas can take years, even decades, to stick. Even when they are relevant to everyone, and potentially world-changing.
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Timeless ideas

Nevertheless, like Trist and friends, we are convinced that the teams they described are likely to be more productive, and more satisfying to workers, than the conventional hierarchy.

It also anticipates, accurately, not only how the most progressive companies of this century, like Buurtzorg, Haier, and Vkusvill, organize themselves, but also how they outperform their competition with more engaged and productive workforces.

Which shows us innovative ideas can take years, even decades, to stick. Even when they are relevant to everyone, and potentially world-changing...

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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