The System Comes First

‘In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.’ — Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1912

February, 2017

Since Fred Taylor’s classic The Principles of Scientific Management was published in 1912, it has never been out of print; the latest reprint of the original book came out in 2014. Taylor was an important intellectual founder of the modern world; if you wish, you can read about him in Chapter 4 of my book The Yankee Road.

What he was addressing in the above quote is the idea that complex industries, and by extension, complex governments cannot be run through the personal whims of managers and leaders. In order to be stable, they must adhere to some kind of system. The personalist Hitlerian regime lasted a dozen years before collapsing in war; the personalist Maoist system collapsed in about the same time span from its own excess; the Russian system petered out when its momentum died with its long-time leader, Stalin; its only sustenance beyond then coming from having nuclear weapons.

This is not to say that some simpler companies cannot be structured around the whims of individual owners, such as developers, fund managers and venture capitalists, but any kind of large corporation having thousands of employees and fabricating complex products, be they physical or digital, that are sold in many countries, has to have a system of management that constrains the people at the top as well as those below, if it is to survive in its desired form. Call it a constitution, if you want. Peter Drucker, the famous management theorist did, in his Concept of the Corporation in 1946.

There is much made of the survival of the American system of government for 230 years under its present Constitution It has done so through many perilous situations, including a Civil War, precisely because it constitutes a system, not beholden to the whims of the ‘man’. There is a complex of laws emanating from this document that constrains the ability of any man from making wholesale changes and ignoring the basic rules of this system. The idea of a written constitution arose in the 1780s to meet the challenge of governing a huge piece of land inhabited by a complex, yet intertwined population. Taylor’s genius lay in his realization that a system was required for the continuing governance of large national and multinational corporations.

Today, the US has a President who comes from the personalist tradition, not that of systems. He has a relatively simple mix of companies that he can govern effectively, it seems, by just intervening here and there. He functions in a broader context that he may well be unaware of, in its wider application. He fights lawsuits—claims that his decisions transgressed the rules set by the larger system—and enjoys legal protections for his companies from those who might injure his interests. He does not have thousands of investors nor produce complex products, so he can run things personally, with all the whims and phobias attached to his psyche. He is 70 years old and this is the only way he has ever run an organization.

Now, he is like the dog who chased the car and caught it—what does he do next? He won the Presidential election by a fluke in the Constitution, has been inaugurated and has set out to rule the country just like he rules his company—as a person, not within a system.

At the same time, there is a system, and it is a strong one. Most of its employees, from the Vice President on down and including Congress and the judiciary, are invested in the system, not in the person of the President. He has gloried in the idea that he will (personally) break the mold and go off in his own direction. Two things are beginning to happen as a result of his following his own decades-long habits. First, he has given a signal to government employees that they also can break the mold and act as they want to, but their action consists of leaking all kinds of stuff that the President does not want out there. Yet his example, for instance, of tweeting his personal reactions to trivia sends a message that the system’s rules do not have to be obeyed by anyone in the system. Monkey see, monkey do.

The second thing is mixed up with his ignorance of the system that he has ‘caught’. Neither he nor his loyalists realize that there are different laws that deal with issues deemed to be of national importance. These are not like traffic laws or skyscraper setbacks or height restrictions. These condition what you say and to whom you can say it to, because these are considered matters of national policy. A citizen can pretty much say anything he or she wants, because it is not considered to be an American policy statement, but any elected person, that is, an officer of this complex organization called the federal government, has to be cognizant that his or her speech rights are abridged to the degree of their importance in the system. As Taylor noted in 1912, the system incorporates the individual, not the other way around.

This is important in the problem of foreign involvement in American elections. During the campaign, the President had not yet been elected, but his staff were apparently involved in discussions with a foreign government, encouraging its involvement in the American elections. Now, there has been interference in American elections before, going back to before 1800, and it has always worked out badly if the perpetrators were caught, though, like today, it is usually after the election.

The problem gets serious when the relationship between miscreants and the campaign is reaffirmed even after the scandal has broken. An experienced politician would instinctively know enough to distance himself or herself from this kind of action. In the present case, this is not happening, or happening reluctantly, which is probably worse. Some experienced Senator, caught up in something similar, would have expressed shock and horror, dismissed the miscreants with words of shame and anger and apologized to the electorate, even if he or she had been knowledgeable of what was going on. This hypocrisy is a necessary part of acknowledging the legal and moral existence of the system.

Now, a President who is 70 (this being an age that I know what I am talking about) and who is used to a particular managing style just can’t do that. The personal bonds that tie such a President to a confidant mean that loyalty takes precedence over system. Add to that his rookie factor and there is a scandal of truly Nixonian proportions unfolding.  Remember, it was only a campaign dirty-tricks break-in gone wrong that set that one off in the 1970s.

The Congress, which has fumed in the purgatory of the constant naysayer for the past 6 years, is eager to get on with its huge to-do list of policy changes. Instead it is faced with the need to get this scandal out of the way first. The problem is that the longer it drags on, the more likely there will be a personal rupture between a wounded President and a frustrated Congress. The legislative result this standoff, for a couple of years or so, will be even more ‘nothing’.

If a Congressional whitewash is done in order to clear the decks for action, there is no doubt that this issue will just drag on under the surface, damaging Republican claims to be the real patriots, in effect, asking voters to disregard their accepting foreign meddling (and money?) once in a while.  Meanwhile the civil service will just keep imitating their bosses and ‘leaking’ all over the place.

I expect the President to become more isolated in the White House and in his places in Miami and New York, while a Game of Thrones rerun works it way through his competing groups of advisers. I expect the Vice President, with assistance from Congress, to come out on top. He’s almost the only one around the President who knows the system. Maybe Mr. Cheney can give Mr. Pence some helpful tips.

This is not going to end well.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2017

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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America

Who is a Yankee and where did the term come from? Though shrouded in myth and routinely used as a substitute for American, the achievements of the Yankees have influenced nearly every facet of our modern way of life.

Join author Jim McNiven as he explores the emergence and influence of Yankee culture while traversing an old transcontinental highway reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific — US 20, which he nicknames “The Yankee Road.”


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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