A Brief History Of Process – From the Industrial Revolution To Today

ninja-booksThis post was originally published on the iDatix Insider’s Blog.


When we sit in our offices and perform our day-to-day tasks, we don’t often think about how our jobs came to exist or the way in which work is structured in our organizations.  But the fact is that the way we work today is a legacy of hundreds of years of thinking about the way work is best performed. In particular the legacy of the industrial revolution looms large.

Hundreds of years ago work was the domain of each individual. From a process perspective they completed all parts of the end-to-end process. They researched, created, sold and distributed their products – much like a small business today. Fast forward to 1776 and Adam Smith introduced the world to the Industrial Revolution via his iconic book The Wealth of Nations.

Smith talked about what he defined as the “Division of Labor” – what we call functions today – and he used the example of the making of metal pins to demonstrate the benefits of the division of labor:

“Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day”

Adam Smith was right and it became the basis of how we do work today – functions designed to complete specific tasks. But as companies, products and marketplaces became more complex and segmented, so became the need to have more complex and specialized functions within organizations.  We are now all acutely aware of the challenges that this brings for organizations to manage the flow of work across these functional specialties.

With a way of working comes ways to improve that work and improve the quality of the work that is performed. Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the key figures in improving industrial engineering processes in the 19thCentury. Taylor’s focus was on scientific study of work, standardization of process, systematic training and sound structure of employees and management.

In contrast to Taylor, Peter Drucker (1909-2005) took a more sympathetic approach to employees, coining the term “knowledge workers” in contrast to Taylor’s structured and sometimes inflammatory treatment of workers. Drucker’s focus on simplification and decentralization effectively created what we understand as outsourcing today.  Another of Drucker’s key points was his continual focus on serving the customer.

Whilst many others contributed to new trends and new terminologies Smith, Taylor and Drucker stand out as the “poster boys” of process from the industrial revolution until the early 1990’s.

In the mid 1980’s Motorola introduced the Six Sigma methodology that focused on the improvement of quality. Six Sigma was based strongly on other quality approaches such as Total Quality Management. In the early 1990’s Lean (based on the Toyota Production System) became a popular means of eliminating “waste” from organizational processes.

The mid 1990’s saw a frenzy of interest in what came to be called“process re-engineering”. Unfortunately rather than being seen as a means of improving organizational effectiveness and productivity it became synonymous with corporate downsizing – a PR disaster for the process movement that lasted many years. Nothing typified this period more than Michael Hammer’s eponymous quote that when implementing process change organisations should “carry the wounded, but shoot the stragglers!”.

So where are we today? Methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma (or a combination of both) are still used extensively in organizations, but both have their share of critics who cite the lack of practicality when rigidly implementing the methods. Many process experts also argue that techniques historically developed to suit manufacturing industries are not well suited to service industries and “knowledge work”, which exhibit less linear processes. New methods such as the CEM Method are proving popular due to their practical implementation methods but their viability is yet to be proven over the long term.

Technology solutions have also exploded in the last 20 years – we now have systems for process mapping, process modeling, data modeling, workflow and process management to name but a few. Indeed we are now seeing a convergence of all of these technologies into integrated business process suites.

The arguments over methodologies and systems will always be with us, but as long as we are continuing to look at new ways of adding value to organizations the future of process thinking will continue to be bright for many years to come.




This blog is also available on The Process Ninja.

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By Craig Reid @ The Process Ninja | May 31, 2012

2 Responses to A Brief History Of Process – From the Industrial Revolution To Today

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