Mr. Efficiency

The business guru Jim Collins has a stopwatch – an impressive, digital stopwatch, judging from the picture of it in the New York Times.

His stopwatch keeps three separate times, a running tally of time spent on pursuits he labels “creative,” “teaching,” and “other.” Collins tabulates the readings of the stopwatch on a spreadsheet; then he posts the results on a whiteboard in his Boulder, Colorado office. His aim, he tells the Times, is to keep the creative pursuits (writing and exploring ideas) at or above fifty percent of his time, and to divide the rest of his time between his teaching duties at the University of Colorado and the managing of his small enterprise – which supports all the things Jim Collins does: writing business books about why companies succeed and fail, giving talks, and consulting.

Bravo, I would like to say. I know the vigilance required to keep other obligations from impinging on one’s creative work, and though I am not teaching right now, I aspire to a balance much like the one Collins has achieved. But then there’s that stopwatch, and the spreadsheets (Collins even logs his hours of sleep: he needs 70 to 75 hours every ten days), and I have to wonder just what sort of guru Jim Collins really is – or what religion he’s out to spread.

Adam Bryant, who wrote the profile for the Times, calls it “doggedness.” Collins takes an “exacting approach to time management and research,” Bryant writes, and lives according to a “method” he “borrows from other hypersuccessful people. He approaches every aspect of his life with purpose and intensity.” That’s certainly one way of putting it. But it misses an important point, and misses why I can’t bring myself to applaud or approve.

Bryant’s portrait of Collins is a study in what I would call ethical Taylorism. I think the coinage is sound and the label applies. Taylor, of course, is F. W. Taylor, the great grandfather of “scientific management” and management consulting. Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru, described Taylor as “the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work.” In the time studies for which he’s best known, Taylor analyzed a bit of industrial work and broke down the actions required to perform it into hundredths of a second to look for more efficient ways to perform the action. He thought there could be a “science of handling pig-iron” and a science of shoveling (and, incidentally, that the pig-iron worker or the day laborer was too stupid to figure out the “one best way” to perform his appointed task).

Collins has turned his whole life into a Time Study. He has made a habit of efficiency – habit here in the Aristotelian sense of an ethical habit, a disposition or hexis. It is only fitting, I suppose, that this creature of scientific management should devote the “creative” work he so jealously guards from other obligations to questions of management theory — those are less likely than others to lead him to other obligations — but the real point here is a simple one: ethical Taylorism makes a virtue of efficiency. Or, to put it another way, it mistakes efficiency for virtue. (In this light, I have to wonder how ethical Taylorism might have played into the financial crisis, or how it might play into the impending business failure of the New York Times.)

The most popular expression of ethical Taylorism is probably Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book nearly everyone professes to have read but hasn’t, because books like this are ultimately unreadable — and not ever meant to be read (because that would be a waste of time). It, too, is a celebration of the life efficiently lived, of effectiveness; the two Taylorist terms share an etymological root in the Latin efficere, and a philosophical confusion of human being with an efficient cause.

Or they both rely on an unphilosophical reduction: in this conception, human work is merely a means to an end, so it should be made as time-efficient as possible, and human beings are agents — no, merely agents who bring about an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. There is not much room here for human dignity, or true vocation, or even a sense of creative work as discovery and self-discovery. (The creative is harnessed to a regime of production.) I might go so far as to say that there is not much room here for the human aspect of human being; ethical Taylorism reduces the human being to an economic or industrial agent. Think of the business organizations that embody this ethos; think, too, about the politics that follow from this reduction.

Forget wonder. Focus, instead, on success, only on what works, on being highly effective, even “hypersuccessful.” With doggedness and luck (Collins attributes much of his success to luck), things might work out for you. But — win or lose — the real trouble with ethical Taylorism is that it offers (at best) an impoverished idea of virtue or human excellence. Eventually, you’d think, the human will rebel, or wander from the plan of “creative” work into unfruitful and unscientific speculation on his Creator, or nap. I certainly hope so.

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