Tinker, Taylor…

The old English nursery rhyme “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” was adapted as title for John LeCarre’s 1974 spy novel. Its main character, George Smiley, first fired, then reinstated, is the Beggar Man of the rhyme. At some point, he is involved in an operation called “Witchcraft”, forcing a Soviet mole to reveal his identity. Smiley, naturally, becomes the hero.

I have often written of a hero of our engineered world, Isaac Newton. He, after all, conceived of a world of laws and determinacy, a predictable world (if only we understood the laws and knew its conditions at any moment). It was a world where complexity was merely apparent, where, if only we reduced the problem to its smallest components, we could understand it, and fix it. Newton has become, of course, somewhat of an anti-hero of complexity. Complexity science, after all, sees a world beyond Newton. Here, problems (or solutions) are not resultant from the behavior of individual components, but emerge from the interaction between components. We should not go down and in to focus on a single component. Rather, we have to go up and out to understand these relationships and how they eventually produce the behavior we find interesting or problematic.

Frederick_Winslow_TaylorEven though Newton has helped create the world that could allow a scientific and industrial revolution, it was someone else whose work resonates even more strongly with those involved in safety work today. Frederick Taylor, whose scientific management of the early 1900’s became a huge hit, believed in determinacy and predictability, and certainly in reductionism. But he, more than anyone before him, was able to translate those principles into efficiency. Efficiency that translated into money for business owners. In the 1993 book Technopoly, Neil Postman argued that Taylorism is founded on the following assumptions:

  • The primary, if not the only, goal of human behavior (their work and thought) is efficiency;
  • Technical calculation is always superior to human judgment;
  • Human judgment cannot be trusted because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity;
  • Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking;
  • Affairs of workers are best guided by experts.

How much of that rings true for safety work today? People are lax and only pursue efficiency (the path of least resistance). Risk is something that can be calculated; human judgment is far from perfect. It is unreliable. We can and should calculate our way out of uncertainty. Once we have calculated risk, we can write rules to contain it; rules for people to follow. We remove the subjectivity, we valorize the supposed objectivity of the expert. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed, as Nicholas Carr observes.

Taylor had a messianic zeal about him, a sense of righteousness, a firm belief in his cause, a sense of mission. His was on a moral imperative to help businesses weed out inefficiency, repress initiative from below, remove ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. This was more than business, this was faith. And a very strong faith at that. We have probably all met safety professionals or business leaders who seem to have committed themselves similarly, who have substituted cranium for conviction, deliberation for doctrine.

It has left us with a truly pinched conception of the human mind—of its abilities and aspirations. And it is this rather limited conception that we have elevated to law. We are obsequious to Taylor in ways we may not even recognize. Indeed, to the extent that we dare to think differently about safety (and, by extension, about the human mind and its capacities), we merely tinker with Taylor. “Consultation”, for example, is the softly spurious OHS speak for listening to those who are not the avowed “expert” or for listening to something other than the dictates of technical calculation. It is tinkering, tinkering with Taylor.

Before Taylor, workers could draw on their experience, on their training, on their knowledge and their situational insight to make their own decisions about how best to work. There was not “one best method” because everything about work can vary in ways that cannot be predicted. The assumptions for that one best method are almost always invalid. Not only did workers follow their own script, they wrote their own scripts.

Today, however, we expect workers to be so dumb (or lax, ambiguous and unnecessarily complex) that we believe we must write the script for them and get them to follow it, or else. But where is our tolerance for the messiness that comes with personal initiative, with occasional sloppiness, with creativity and whim? Where is the sort of messiness that has given the world penicillin, GMail, and Wikipedia?

There is something instructive about the codename for the project that blew the cover of LeCarre’s Soviet spy. “Witchcraft”. This is what made the Beggarman the hero of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy plot. Witchcraft, like much other craft, is about reliance on the things we no longer want workers to rely on. Such conscious craft, as (again) Nicholas Carr observes in The Shallows, has become unconscious routine. We have driven workers to go through the motions, yet we tell them to be attentive. But how can they be attentive to something that has all but ruled out their knowledge and intuition? Tinkering with Taylor is no longer enough. We might want to actually retire him after more than 100 years of his work.


  1. Andrew Townsend Reply

    Sidney – Your description of Taylor as having “messianic zeal” is apt. Safety has become the new religion with its own high priests and acolytes who presume to interpret it for us lesser mortals. The language and behavior of some of the UK high priests is somewhat reminiscent of the medieval church. When this new religion is challenged the acolytes show signs of distress and the high priests keep spouting the same old dogma. Keep the Reformation going!

  2. Kelvin Genn Reply


    Great piece – Tinker Taylor. In reading it, I associated with some of Douglas McGreggors work. He proposed the management concepts Theory X and Theory Y, where it could be contended that theory X is the expression of Taylors thinking, and the associated reductionist world. I would posture that Theory X is an accurate description of the current behaviour based safety rules driven paradigm. Under Theory X, management assumes the following for its workers:

    • Work is inherently distasteful to most people, and they will attempt to avoid work whenever possible.
    • Most people are not ambitious, have little desire for responsibility, and prefer to be directed.
    • Most people have little aptitude for creativity in solving organizational problems.
    • Motivation occurs only at the physiological and security levels of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy.
    • Most people are self-centred. As a result, they must be closely controlled and often coerced to achieve organizational objectives.
    • Most people resist change.
    • Most people are gullible and unintelligent.

    For Theory X, management assumes employees dislike work, are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can. Subsequently, Theory X managers believe that workers need to be closely supervised and comprehensive systems of controls developed (Safe Work Method Statements, Safe Work Procedures, Job Hazard Analysis and Safe Behaviour Observations). A hierarchical structure is then required with a narrow span of control at each and every level. According to Theory X, employees will show little ambition without an enticing incentive program and will avoid responsibility (safe behaviour) whenever they can. For Theory X, if the organizational goals are to be met, theory X managers rely heavily on threat and coercion to gain their employees’ compliance. The resultant environment of this theory is mistrust, highly restrictive supervision, and a punitive atmosphere. The Theory X safety manager tends to believe that everything must end in finding the root cause and blaming someone. He or she thinks all prospective employees are only out for themselves. These managers contend that the sole purpose of the employee’s interest in a job is money. Theory X managers will blame the person first in most situations, without questioning whether it may be the system, policy, or lack of training that has constructed the conditions for failure. A Theory X manager believes that his or her employees do not really want to work, that they would rather avoid responsibility and that it is the manager’s job to structure the work and energize the employee.

    These concepts of management are so strong and pervasive, that they behave like a self-propagating weed.

  3. Hans Houtman Reply

    So with Newton, Taylor and McGreggor but also with some religious concepts that hard working must be done by humans and will lead to a better life, all we can is that the system used to come to “a better outcome” (for some at least) is more rules: “Let’s give the workforce more rules, let’s describe how they have to behave”, and the world will become a better place.
    The problem that can be seen with this way of working is that the rules lead to a situation where common sensical ways of working are robbed from the workers. They don’t need common sense, they just have to follow the rules. And because the study of Law at universities is older than safety, it has a firm basis in society.
    Let’s be more anarchistic and discus less rules. It makes managers uncertain and can be the start of normal thinking 😉

  4. Andrew Townsend Reply

    Kelvin – Thanks for adding to my reading list.

    From experience and observation type X managers produce type X responses in workers. It becomes a vicious circle.

    From experience also I believe most workers can and do ‘self actualize’. They are intuitive problem solvers. They have intelligence in their hands. Unfortunately the education system only measures IQ and society does not rate manual skills highly. I could rant on for 20,000 – 30,000 words on this so let’s cut straight to a challenge.

    1. Is it possible to create a safety management system or philosophy that ‘supports’ rather than ‘controls’?
    2. How would we assemble and test the evidence that such a system or philosophy leads to reduced probability of injury, incident or ill health?
    3. Given that we are faced with a conservative establishment highly resistant to change, how would we generate overwhelming public/industry interest and support for change?

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