Taylor’s Ghost in the Killing Machine

As No Kill proponents, we ask ourselves over and over again: why such resistance from the shelter management establishment both in public animal control agencies and in nonprofit humane societies and SPCAs? Fifteen years after Richard Avanzino pioneered the elements of the No Kill Equation, what stops others in the field from adopting them comprehensively?

Nathan Winograd and others have written about lack of caring, laziness, and 19th-century attitudes about our obligations towards the dogs and cats in our midst. There has been less discussion about the inadequacy of the 19th-century management principles and techniques still employed in many animal welfare organizations.

Frederick Winslow Taylor developed his theories of scientific management in the Victorian era. His principles are best illustrated by the assembly line.  Breaking down work into discrete, trainable tasks makes it possible to hire “de-skilled” workers instead of specially trained ones. Once the workflow is established, authoritarian managers exercise tight control over their subordinates’ moment-to-moment activities.

Scientific management had its critics even in Taylor’s time, among them that the practice dehumanizes workers and leads to burdensome levels of oversight by too many supervisors. (Ironically this intellectual product of the Efficiency Movement can be terribly inefficient.) In most industries, service industries in particular, Taylorism has been largely displaced by other methods, almost all of which leverage employee domain expertise and discretion.

I thought of old Taylor often in my despairing moments on staff at animal welfare agencies. It was then I understood the meaningful concepts behind the overused buzzwords I learned in corporate settings.

I get what a “flat team” is when I see my employer’s 100 employees distributed among more than a dozen job levels, with duties assigned based upon those levels rather than on the talents individual workers bring to the table or, even better, skill sets deliberately sought via organized recruitment.

I get what a “knowledge worker” is when I ask along with Nathan why the heck the Los Angeles animal control department needs eleven typists—and what a “typist” even does in 2009.

I get what “professionalization” is when I observe a manager or director commanding four employees step-by-step through a three-day process that a single person with market-caliber skills could accomplish alone in a couple of hours.

I get what the “disciplinary approach” is when I hear that a friend who dreamed for a decade of working for a particular organization quit after a few weeks because managers don’t have the organizational skills it takes to give workers reasonably stable or predictable schedules.

Process obstacles such as these drain time, energy, and money away from the goal of saving lives: implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation requires modern management approaches.

A scholar in the 1970s noted that Taylor’s “ideological message required the suppression of all evidence of worker’s dissent, of coercion, or of any human motives or aspirations other than those his vision of progress could encompass.” Therein, I believe, is the emotional core of the resistance from some of the old guard. The lack of trust of the public is coupled with a dictatorial bent with regard to colleagues further down the organizational ladder.

In other words, the expulsion of rescue groups, firing of staff who complain about the animals’ treatment, gag orders for volunteers, and even suspicion of the Internet’s openness are the angry responses of people content with a culture where power, once gained, need never be shared.

Happily for all of us who care about animals, clinging to the past is a losing strategy.  The success of the recent No Kill Conference and the blossoming of this blog demonstrate why.  Those hoping to maintain the Ford factory circa 1915 are simply no match for activist veterinarians and attorneys asking rigorous questions, innovative No Kill shelter directors spreading ideas through Webinars, community members savvy enough to reach the press directly, and the emergent generations of employees and volunteers who are not accustomed to the expectation that they give unquestioning compliance to their bosses.

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