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One Step Back

By Clemens Rettich

We have been on a relentless journey: Two steps forward for every two steps forward. No pause, no retreat. It was progress, our inexorable movement into an always-better tomorrow. Progress was a fundamentalist religion. We worshiped and we marched for 200 years, since the start of the Industrial Revolution. It is a religion of unrelenting technological positivism; of blind faith in inexhaustible resources and infinite growth.

Technological positivism is the belief that technology solves all problems, including the ones it creates. It is self-contained and perfect. Our march was also along a strange avenue, one of continuous and inexorable fragmentation. With each step forward we moved one step apart. Technological positivism has a parallel core belief: that from the dissected parts of anything you can infer the whole. A dominant industrial and scientific activity for 200 years was increasing specialisation, division, and dissection. Our model for industrial efficiency followed suit: If you isolated, grasped and optimised the individual parts, to the smallest element, you optimised the whole. Sometime in the middle of the last century we faltered, our feet kept marching, but the shadow of a question moved across our collective faces. It appeared in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s when technological positivism should have reached its apotheosis, and at the very moment when the promises of the industrial revolution should have burst across our horizons, in an eternal post-war explosion of growth. Then, we took a step back.


“Our march was also along a strange avenue, one of continuous and inexorable fragmentation. With each step forward we moved one step apart”


Taylorism, canonised in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management has become, rightly or wrongly, the term most associated with the effort to sever human agency from human action on the factory floor; the effort to reduce the human to the robotic as far as possible. Taylor was not alone. Henry Ford’s continuous flow factory layouts starting in 1913 at Highland Park and Alfred Sloan’s (1964) severance of executive management from operations starting in the 1920s at General Motors have starring roles in the story of Taylorism. What connects the three is their commitment to management by division. Often portrayed as the very archetype of the soulless engineer, Taylor did understand human productivity and the environmental cost of waste. But his famous “time and motion” studies became indelibly associated with the “soulless engineer” archetype. In his studies, the extent to which men did not behave like machines was seen as a failure of the process and had to be improved upon. This was management by scalpel, the careful dissection of thought from motion.

It is impossible for me not to think here of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein”: or “The Modern Prometheus”. In Shelley’s time, the Industrial Revolution was only 50 years old, but like many artists, Shelley seemed to sense something was going on under the obvious machines and soot. Did she see that modern science and industry were a product of dissection, creating a monster that risked strangling its creator? Taylor’s “Scientific Management” is the “Frankenstein” of organisational literature. Taylor’s method severed employees from their work as a finished product. In the application of scientific management, the employee does only one thing, from the “departmental viewpoint”. The treatment of human beings on the factory floor as functionally interoperable units mirrored the mass manufacture of identical products. Ford was religious about this, and he understood that deviation added cost, and uniformity was the goal. What is completely uniform is also completely interoperable. With the advent of the automobile and the industries that produced it, the suburbs were born, driving a splintering of communities. The working class lived closer to the factories (in inner-ring or “streetcar” suburbs), and management class moved further out into larger homes. Through the middle of the 20th century, the rings for both classes pushed further and further out, with distance from work signifying status, as distant country estates have always done. With the growing wealth that mass production created for the working class, home ownership became a norm for employees of the auto industry, and the industries that fed it. The long-term consequences have been catastrophic. Social lives became atomised as lone employees entered a steel capsule after work, which took them to their suburban capsule, to reverse the process the next day. Waves of inner-city collapse, gentrification and regentrification rippled through cities. Automobile-caused air pollution in places like Los Angeles and then one city after another, became the stuff of legend. By the 1970s the atomisation of industrial society had reached a zenith, and neo-liberal capitalism peaked. Milton Friedman wrote his New York Times essay “A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits” in 1970, canonising the doctrines of modern neo-liberalism and severing the corporation from any social or environmental responsibility. Friedman made it clear that social and environmental concerns had to be fully severed from the thinking of the modern corporate executive.

“With the growing wealth that mass production created for the working class, home ownership became a norm for employees of the auto industry, and the industries that fed it. The long-term consequences have been catastrophic”




Driven by decades of scientific and industrial optimism, in the 1960s we were supposed to start our ascent to suburbs in the skies. The Jetsons, every one of us. But it didn’t happen. While technology literally put us in orbit, something else faltered. The Vietnam War, draft dodgers, Silent Spring, the race riots, pollution, declining Western competitiveness. We faltered, we protested, we doubted. Was it Hiroshima? The Korean war? The cold war? Television? Complacency brought on by success itself? Was it The East in some new twist in the long, complicated history of Western Orientalism? Why did Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea move onto the stage less than a decade after the Second World War? One element did remain constant for now: The automobile itself. No product was more symbolic to the American Dream than the automobile and the industry that surrounded it.

“Friedman made it clear that social and environmental concerns had to be fully severed from the thinking of the modern corporate executive”


When Toyota began to export its vehicles in growing volumes, gaining market share year after year it felt like an existential threat that far exceeded the actual numbers. In 1966 Toyota hit a new high-water mark of 20,000 cars in a total U.S market of 9 million cars produced. But in 1967 Toyota also opened its first U.S. headquarters in California. More important to this story, the seed of the paradigm that was to prove transformative to organisational thinking had set down roots in Japan, and especially the Japanese auto industry. In part through the Marshall Plan, the work of W. E. Deming and other westerners connected with the quietly revolutionary work of Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno at Toyota. Deming’s influence on organisational thinking long predates and extends beyond his work in the context of his time in Japan, but it was there that his thinking found nurturing soil. Deming was all the engineer that F. W. Taylor was. Much of Deming’s work is in the statistical control of processes. But in his work, there is the same pause, the same subtle shift, the same fading of confidence in the perfectibility of systems that we started to see in society at large. In Deming, the human began to walk back into the picture. He believed that “people generally want to do the right thing, but in a large organization, they frequently don't really understand what is the right thing” (Deming, 2018, p.60). Deming’s “Out of the Crisis” (1982) was written as a response to the existential angst experienced by American industry at its declining dominance and productivity, in the face of primarily Japanese and German competition, especially in the auto industry. The post-war ironies are multiple. In his book, Deming argued for a changed view of the corporate organisation: Toward value creation, long-term sustainability, evidence over tradition, and the elevation of the customer and the employee as central players.


With Toyota came something even more important than the threats its products represented to American industry: The Toyota Production System (TPS). Its subsequent incarnation in North America as “Lean”, played a big role in re-humanising and reintegrating the workplace. TPS has its roots in engineering and scientific thinking but introduced a new and disruptive note in the story of technological positivism. Lean inherited the value systems of technological positivism as the approach was still framed as scientific and methodological. After all, most of its greatest progenitors and proponents like Deming, Toyoda and Ohno were all mid-20th century engineers. But something was different here: A hesitation in the omnipotent scientist-engineer, in the sacrament of planning, and in the infallibility of the plan.

The shift can best be captured in two of the elements that go into the overall matrix that make up the Toyota Production System: the concepts of “kaizen” and the “andon”. Kaizen is usually translated as “continuous improvement”. It is a holistic approach rooted in the spirit of relentless improvement that was baked into the culture of Toyota long before it became an auto manufacturer (Toyota started in the textiles industry). Kaizen is revolutionary because it is a crack in the perfection of the plan. Continuous improvement recognises that no process and no plan is or can be perfect. The human, the unpredictable, the statistically inevitable anomaly, will always play a role. The emphasis shifts from the perfection of the plan to the speed of learning and response in the real world. The andon is a light (and the button or cord that activates it) in a production area. An employee activates the light, switching it from green to yellow or red, when there is a problem. The magical word in that idea is employee, meaning front line employee. Not manager, not Quality Assurance, or any other bureaucratic functionary in an atomised network of functionaries. The employee who discovered the failure or flaw has the power to act, and the power is unqualified. When the employee activates the red option, production stops completely. The idea that a lone frontline employee could stop production for a quality defect or a safety issue, is unthinkable in orthodox Taylorism. In that model the point was to reduce individual autonomy as close to zero as possible. In the innovation of the andon, Toyota signaled that the employee and the product of their work are not severable. Right improvement (kaizen in Japanese) is a continuous real-time dance with failure, with the totality of an imperfect system, with human agency and autonomy.

"Kaizen is revolutionary because it is a crack in the perfection of the plan. Continuous improvement recognises that no process and no plan is or can be perfect"


As the century moved on, the symbolic center of industrial progress shifted from the automobile to software. Fed up with the deep disconnects in the traditional way of producing software, a group of engineers and programmers got together in 2001 to question the way work in software was being done. A product of that meeting was the Agile Manifesto (N/A, 2001) with its core tenets stated as; Individuals and interactions over processes and tools; Working software over comprehensive documentation; Customer collaboration over contract negotiation; Responding to change over following a plan. The verbs are significant: to interact, to work, to collaborate, to respond.

The Agile movement inherited the spirit of kaizen, of team-based work, of direct interaction with the work, from the Toyota Production System and Lean. But the nature of software forced an even deeper change to our connection with work. In Agile, disconnects between team members, team members and their projects, and team members and customers, must all approach zero. Distance and disconnect are fatal in this world. It is no accident that the early days of the “dot com” boom saw a flowering of new approaches to work, not just through foosball tables and bean-bag chairs, but a “revolutionary” disruption of the paradigms of work.

One of the revolutionaries was Tony Hsieh at Zappos Shoes, an ecommerce pioneer deeply rooted in the culture of software start-ups. The values articulated by the employees of Zappos Shoes in 2005, would have been unintelligible in the days of Taylor, Ford, and Sloan. Their values included;

- Deliver WOW Through Service

- Embrace and Drive Change- Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

- Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

- Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit.

The customer-centric change and growth-oriented language shows evidence of its roots in the values of Deming, Toyoda, and Ohno. But the focus on relationships, and the intrinsic value of the individual, goes even beyond TPS. Even before the Agile Manifesto, mavericks like Ricardo Semler at Semco in Brazil or Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines, were questioning the fundamental assumptions of Taylorism. Each of these organisations proposed a unique solution to reconnect humans with the whole of their work, and with each other.



We have made progress, but the feeling of uncertainty, the hesitation in the march, is stronger than ever. Maybe that’s a good thing. If technological positivism drove many ills, perhaps an age uncertainty is a cure. The Irish Poet W.B Yeats knew the centre was not holding when he wrote the Second Coming in 1919. But at least there was still the sense of a centre. In our time, it feels like we have lost the centre altogether. Our universe has become multiple. We are standing with bits and pieces, some of them beautiful and valuable, but with a deep sense of fatigue driven in part by the uncertainty. The Covid pandemic, and the psychological exhaustion it has triggered have pushed us to the edges seeking new answers in a rapidly changing landscape. With the growing threat of human-caused climate change, our disconnection from the very planet we emerged from feels deeper than ever. From working remotely and virtually, to the divisions in politics, race and culture, disconnection seems to have accelerated again.

I’m uncertain, but not entirely. I’m certain the journey away from Taylorism, from technological positivism is right. We must continue our work of integration and connection. We are not discrete tools to be managed, we are not discrete parts to be sewn together into an organizational monstrosity. I am certain the future of work in organizations is connected, and probabilistic. Connected, in those values like communication, compassion, intimacy, alignment, emotionality, physicality, and sustainability in every sense, must become the centre that holds. Probabilistic, in that no two instances of how those values are realized will be the same in any organization, and in that things will tend in certain directions rather than march there in deterministic lockstep. Uncertainty must become an accepted reality of the universe we function in. It is a necessary expression of the humility we have sorely lacked in the last 150 years.

“With the growing threat of human-caused climate change, our disconnection from the very planet we emerged from feels deeper than ever”


What we know about the outer workings of the universe and the inner workings of the human brain is approaching the religious in its wondrous revelations.  But are those revelations changing us? In the 21st century, why do we live still in the deterministic rooms shaped by Voltaire, Descartes, Newton, Keynes and Taylor, after we have seen and experienced the beauty of probability, and even uncertainty? Connection and unification are not at all the same things. A single unified model to compete with Taylorism, Communism, Capitalism, or Neoliberalism, doesn’t exist. We need to stop looking. The age of technological positivism, with its singular unified, linear march into a known future, with its simple binaries and categories, is over. Even if we haven’t realized it yet. The real answers are multiple but connected; a dance that is unknown but intimate, uncertain but filled with possibilities.





  • Deming, W. E. (1982). Out of the Crisis. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 60

  • Ford Motors. (N/A). Highland Park. [Online]. Available at:

  • Friedman, M. (1970). A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits. New York Times. 13 September 1970, p.17.

  • N/A. (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. [Online]. Agile

  • Manifesto. Available at:

  • Shelley, M. (2018). Frankenstein: The 1818 Text. United States: Penguin Publishing Group

  • Sloan, A., McDonald, J. (1964). My Years with General Motors. United Kingdom: Doubleday.

  • Taylor, F. (1913). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper


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