John Bicheno reviews Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong, W. W. Norton, 2009

Many lean managers and industrial engineers were “brought up” on the work of Fred Taylor and Elton Mayo, and have been influenced by the writings of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Tom Peters, and Michael Porter. But there was, at least for me, much that was unknown about the origins of the theories of these “gurus”. I wondered, after reading this book, if such ignorance was just me, so I asked a tiny sample of two HR academics, from different universities, a strategy academic, and a high profile lean consultant. Guess what? Apart from a few inklings, they were as misinformed as I was.

It is not often that I come across a book that simultaneously informs, horrifies, shocks, and entertains, but here we have one. And beautifully written to boot.

Stewart’s book follows two parallel streams. One tells his own story, from new arrival to partner, in a top management consultancy and the other examines the background to the theories of some major gurus.

On the theories of Taylor and Mayo the word “fudge” comes to mind and probably some four-letter words as well. Apart from fundamental research flaws, “Taylor feigned research where negotiation was required. This confusion of facts and values, the attempt to find pseudotechnical solutions to moral and political problems… is the cardinal sin of management theory to the present” and “’Scientific management’ is not science it is business.” As for Mayo, he was hardly ever at the Hawthorne gemba, and simply ignored contrary evidence. Yet his influence remains.

The consultancy stream reveals an amazing inside story of political wrangling, of some of the generic theories used, and of downright ignorance and internal incompetence whilst charging huge fees to unsuspecting clients. One approach, apparently the invariable opening gambit (that I must admit to using myself) is of the “whale”. In other words, doing a pareto of product contributions and product costs and then revealing these findings and follow up recommendations to often amazed and delighted top management. The consultancy survives, and the partners prosper, basically on the initiative of bright young associates.

MBA education comes in for particular stick. Many are taught by professors with little industrial experience using closed case studies with 20/20 hindsight but little predictive value. Of course, Mintzberg has also taken up this theme, but Stewart extends it. Such programmes nevertheless have value because they are a clearing house for admitting the best and brightest. Stewart’s suggestions, including the replacement of many fashionable theories with discussing Shakespeare and the classics, as a foundation for wiser sustainable practice, should certainly be considered by Deans and recruiters.

Likewise, the writings of (surprising to me) Drucker come in for tough scrutiny. The showmanship and promotional abilities of Tom Peters, Jim Collins and Michael Porter are praised but their theories are treated much more harshly. On Peters and Collins, readers may already be familiar with the devastating critique in Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect. But of Deming, there is no mention. A pity.

The conclusion? If you are a lean practitioner, read this book to understand the limitations of famous theories. If you are a senior manager, read this book before paying high fees to a consultant. If you are an academic, read and reflect on better ways  for lean education.