Traditional to High Performance Organization


The model that has dominated most modern businesses has been based on a set of principles and practices formally defined by Frederick Taylor in 1903 and known as “scientific management.” The thinking of Taylor and other of his contemporaries (most notably Max Weber) conceived of an organization as a collection of parts that need to be standardized and centrally controlled. The assumptions of this model are implicit in the way most organizations are designed and, until recently, have dominated the thinking of people within organizations. Some of the major features of this theory are summarized below.

Specialization. The further down an organization one goes, the more jobs tend to be specialized, repetitive and routine. This makes it easier to train workers and handle contingencies.

Standardization. Through scientific analysis, the one best way to do a job can be determined. Although this practice establishes predictability it also takes away individual motivation and creativity.

Division of Labor. People are “grouped” according to similarity of function. This leads to people more committed to their own skill areas than the overall success of the enterprise.

Centralization. This practice creates a hierarchy and places information and decision-making into the hands of an elite few. It insures unity of authority and command yet results in bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Uniformity. Policies and procedures take ambiguity out of work by insuring that people “do things by the book.” All people and situations are treated in the same manner.

Control. Management’s role is to control the means and speed of work. Employees are viewed as tools for management to accomplish their objectives.

The principles of scientific management were very useful a century ago when this country was moving from a rural society in which people were self employed, produced their own food, made their own clothes, and educated themselves, to an urban society based on mass production and interdependence. With these changes in the structure of society and the way in which work was organized, it was necessary to create bureaucratic organizations to manage and control masses of untrained people.

Although this paradigm may have been useful in moving us to an industrial society, it does not fit with the complex and changing nature of the economy, market place, technologies and people today. It is seriously flawed in numerous ways. Two primary fallacies stand out. First, in the traditional organization, work is fragmented in such a way that people do not see or feel responsibility for a “whole process.” They over-identify with their own jobs and fail to understand or care about the overall good of the company or customers they serve. This leads to poor communication, redundancies of effort, turf battles, delays in decision-making, and general inefficiency. It is most noticeable when a piece of work is completed and “thrown over the wall” to another department to be forgotten, when an urgent decision that directly impacts a customer is delayed for a couple of days because it needs someone else’s signature, or when work is inspected after it has been built.

A second flaw of the traditional paradigm is that managers are the thinkers and planners and employees are the doers. These organizations fail to tap the tremendous intelligence and creativity of their people. Power exists at the top and people on the “front lines” and closest to the core process of the business have less authority to make decisions, solve problems or significantly contribute to the mission or goals of the organization. Most people do routine, repetitive and somewhat unchallenging jobs without much sense that they really make a difference in the overall direction or success of the business. This results in organizations that are bureaucratic, lacking innovation, unresponsive to customer needs and generally unsatisfying places of employment. Unfortunately, in spite of such limitations, the traditional paradigm continues to dominate the practices of most businesses throughout this country today.

Over the years many people have recognized and attempted to overcome the limitations inherent within the traditional paradigm. Management by objectives, participative management, team-building, quality circles and total quality management represent major approaches to improve organizational functioning. Although valuable, none of these approaches is comprehensive enough to address all of the problems posed by the traditional organization. They represent incremental changes that leave the traditional paradigm intact.

The High Performance Paradigm

There has emerged in recent years an exciting new paradigm known as high performance or high commitment work systems that is changing the way we think about people and how work is organized. A high performance organization could be defined as an organization which achieves outstanding results by making each person a contributing partner to the business. In high performance organizations people understand the business. They are committed to getting results and are organized into self-regulating, customer-focused business units or teams. The team and its members take full responsibility for making decisions, solving problems and continuously improving the quality of their work. The organization is grouped around core processes rather than functions. Core processes are the major tasks or steps involved in building a product or delivering a service and the basic reason for an organization’s existence.

Assembling a keyboard, approving a loan for a new home, treating a patient at a medical clinic, or processing an insurance claim all involve a series of interdependent tasks and can be thought of as core processes. Everyone involved with a particular core process is a member of the same team and is empowered with full authority for the success of a whole product, service or major segment of work. Roles and responsibilities are much broader and more meaningful in scope than in a traditional organization. The team is responsible for setting goals, coordinating and scheduling their work, interfacing with the customer, training, making decisions and problem solving, monitoring quality, and even measuring performance and making hiring and selection decisions. The role of management changes from that of controlling workers and solving day-to-day problems to being facilitators and coaches. They define outcomes, manage boundaries, interface with other departments and, in general, insure that the team has the resources, training, information and support they need to carry out the job.

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  1. […] organizational models that still prevail were defined as “scientific management” in the 1900s. These models perceived the organization as “a collection of parts that need to be standardized and centrally […]

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