Coercive vs. Enabling Bureaucracies-Employee Empowerment

Under Taylor’s (1947) scientific management, workers were viewed as machines who needed to be made as efficient as possible through the manipulations of industrial engineers and autocratic managers. The process consisted of the following:

  • Scientifically determining the one best way of doing the job.
  • Scientifically developing the one best way to train someone to do the job.
  • Scientifically selecting people who were most capable of doing the job in that way.
  • Training foremen to teach their “subordinates” and monitor them so they followed the one best way.
  • Creating financial incentives for workers to follow the one best way and exceed the performance standard scientifically set by the industrial engineer.

Taylor did achieve tremendous productivity gains by applying scientific management principles. But he also created very rigid bureaucracies in which managers were supposed to do the thinking and workers were to blindly execute the standardized procedures. The results were predictable:

  • Red tape
  • Tall, hierarchical organizational structures
  • Top-down control
  • articles and articles of written rules and procedures
  • Slow and cumbersome implementation and application
  • Poor communication
  • Resistance to change
  • Static and inefficient rules and procedures

Most bureaucracies are static, internally focused on efficiency, controlling of employees, unresponsive to changes in the environment, and generally unpleasant to work in (Burns and Stalker, 1994). But in organizational theory, bureaucracies are not necessarily bad. Bureaucracies can be very efficient if the environment is very stable and if technology changes very little. However, most modern organizations try to be flexible and “organic,” meaning focused on effectiveness, adaptable to change, and empowering of their employees. Organic organizations are more effective when the environment and technology are changing rapidly. So it would appear, since the world around us is changing at the speed of thought, that it’s time to throw out the bureaucratic standards and policies and create self-managing teams to be flexible and competitive. The Toyota Way follows neither approach.

Paul Adler, an organizational theory expert who has studied Toyota’s organizational practices, noticed from in-depth studies of Toyota’s NUMMI plant in California that the jobs are highly repetitive with short cycle times (e.g., about one minute before repeating). The workers follow very detailed standardized procedures that touch every aspect of the organization. In the workplace, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Waste is being eliminated to continually increase productivity. There are a lot of team leaders and group leaders and an extensive hierarchy. There is strict discipline about time, cost, quality … and safety—virtually every minute of the day is structured. In short, NUMMI has all the characteristics associated with bureaucracy and a very “mechanistic” organization. Wasn’t this exactly what Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management tried to attain?

But NUMMI also has many of the characteristics associated with flexible organizations referred to as “organic”: extensive employee involvement, a lot of communication, innovation, flexibility, high morale, and a strong customer focus. This caused Adler to rethink some of the traditional theories about bureaucratic organizations. He realized that there are not two types of organizations—bureaucratic/mechanistic vs. organic—but at least four. You can distinguish organizations with extensive bureaucratic rules and structures (mechanistic) from those unencumbered by bureaucracy (organic). But often when we think of bureaucracy, we think of a set of rigid rules and procedures. The rules and procedures are all part of the technical structure of the organization. But this ignores the social structure, which can be either “coercive” or “enabling.” When you put together the two technical structures with the two social structures, you get the four types of organization and two types of bureaucracy. TPS at NUMMI was proving that the technical standardization when coupled with enabling social structures can lead to “enabling bureaucracy.”

Adler (1999) went further in contrasting coercive bureaucracies with enabling bureaucracies. While both carefully design systems and procedures that must be followed, the similarity stops there. Summarizes how the coercive bureaucracy uses standards to control people, catch them breaking the rules, and punish them to get them back in line. The workers feel like they are part of a chain gang, rather than a home team. By contrast, enabling systems are simply the best practice methods, designed and improved upon with the participation of the work force. The standards actually help people control their own work.

The key difference between Taylorism and the Toyota Way is that the Toyota Way preaches that the worker is the most valuable resource—not just a pair of hands taking orders, but an analyst and problem solver. From this perspective, suddenly Toyota’s bureaucratic, top-down system becomes the basis for flexibility and innovation. Adler called this behavior “democratic Taylorism.”

The assumption that to be a high-performance organization meant throwing out the mechanistic bureaucratic rulearticle and adopting an organic system to empower employees did a great deal of harm to organizations in the 1980s and 1990s. The Toyota Way shows that, to remain competitive year after year and continually stay among the industry leaders, a company must have viable and enabling standards so it can continually improve upon repeatable processes.