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Is manufacturing stuck in a Fayolian dystopia of rigidity: Assessing the rationale of the rational system in 2024.

Does early career leadership development matter? This is ultimately the question that arose from this moment of incredulity as I inadvertently became a fly on the wall...

The rational era of business followed the post-industrial era and was characterized by the highly administrative and managerial-task approach, in which work, and roles were heavily regulated and controlled.  Regardless of the industry, manufacturing or service, the rational era was highly ridged.  This was also the beginning of social-psychological research leading to our understanding of how individuals influence productivity.  Eventually this body of research contributed to recognizing the need to loosen the reins of control – recognizing that people play a key part in the success or failure of an organization.  The key findings of all of this research is that our team members are more than just cogs in the wheel, thus ushering in the natural then later open era of organizational understanding.


Manufacturing is the backbone of industry; it produces the resources that shape our infrastructure, the tools that develop and innovate, and the jobs that grow and sustain the economy.  Many of our manufacturing organizations can be traced back to a rational structure, emerging in the early part of the 20th century.  Furthermore, many have been established and led by engineers that remain prevalent in leadership roles today.  Engineers are brought into manufacturing organizations because they understand the acumen and process of engineering as part of manufacturing activities.  They are frequently put into leadership positions without any leadership development, as cited by many who have spent their own careers in manufacturing.    


Recently, I had the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall,” as I called on my coaching client, a bit early on my part, while he finished a virtual meeting.  I couldn’t help but notice some of the language that initiated each part of an important conversation:


“I may be out of turn by bringing this up”

“please forgive if I am over-stepping”

“I hope I am not stepping on any-bodies toes”

“If I may, I’d like to introduce a different approach”

“Is it possible that we could consider our rules around overtime…if that’s OK”


These were phrases uttered by senior engineers.  I was definitely intrigued, and couldn’t help but wonder, “is manufacturing stuck in a Fayolian-rational paradigm”?  Does this explain the litany of manufacturing failures, recalls, defects, and safety related accidents?  Can this outdated approach to organizational leadership explain the high-degree of dis-engagement?  Since many of these institutions are old, large, and international, how is this obsolete approach to leading influence emerging leaders and/or leadership in other industries? 


The rational system of organizations is defined as a structure in which “arrangements within organizations are conceived as tools deliberately designed to achieve the efficient realization of ends or from Weber’s perspective, the disciplined performance of participants,” (Scott, 2003, p. 53)   All of the early 20th century rational theorists (which includes Taylor 1911, Fayol 1937, Weber 1946, & Simons, 1958) of the rational system place primary focus on the formalization of rules and roles. 


According to Shenhav, (1999), “engineers played a central role early in attempting to rational approaches to work, attending to the design of both technical and administrative systems.” (as cited in Scott, p. 9).  Clearly then, we have confirmation that engineers were involved in designing early organizations, which many were manufacturing businesses.  Now, I am by no means attempting to speak negatively about engineers; they have, however, been noted by researchers to be singularly focused and have a compartmentalized mindset (Ford, Voyer, & Gould Wilkinson, 2000) by way of education.    

Research by Ford, et al., found that the “dominance of the engineering culture and the lack of organizational learning … suggest that that organizations with a balance among cultures may be more likely to succeed than those dominated by a single culture” in this case engineering. My own experience working in a manufacturing environment mirrored much of this.  Most managers or organizational “leaders” were more likely to be labeled the proverbial bull in the china shop, shutting down conversations and organizational knowledge sharing.  This very inability for departments to share information led to the ultimate cost of a medical start-up: loss of venture capital and the failure of the business, loss of good-paying jobs, and out-of-pocket cost to consumers. 


It’s important then to ask, are these large, mature, international institutions influencing leadership behavior of others?  Can our manufacturing environments, or actually organizations of any nature, benefit from leadership development earlier in a career as opposed to development later in one’s career.   Sadly, later development is seen frequently across all organizations often occurring when team members are placed into leadership roles rather than prior.  How can we help usher manufacturing institutions into the open era where team members thrive and express high-degrees of employee engagement. 


What we do know at this point is that people –our employees—have come to expect more from organizational life associated with more open systems, such as:

  • the ability to share organizational knowledge to promote organizational learning,

  • to feel heard, to learn from one-another through camaraderie and positive team relationships,

  • to exist and thrive within an organization without fear of retribution, and

  • the flexibility to take risk and innovate without fear of being labeled insubordinate. 


 These are all attributes of an open systems, characterized by a culture in which employees have the ability to influence outcomes and great, effective leadership comes from a positive manager – follower relationship.  Is it time to stop promoting engineers, or any team member, into key roles pre-maturely?   Is it time for manufacturing facilities to lead the way into the era of open systems to be a positive influence for all? 


If you’re interested in leadership development to help you attract, train, and retain top talent, lets connect! 


Ford, D.N., Voyer, J.J., & Gould Wilkinson, J.M. (2000). Building Learning Organizations in

Engineering Cultures: case study.  Journal of management in engineering. July/August

2000: 72-83


Scott, W. R. (2003). Organizations: rational, natural, and open systems


Shenhav, Y. (1995). From chaos to systems: the engineering foundations of organization theory, 1879-1932. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40:557-85.


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