The Man with the Plan
The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, by Robert Kanigel, New York: Viking Penguin, 675 pages, $34.95
It's fashionable these days to dismiss the industrial era as a kind of Dark Ages from which, thanks to the integrated circuit, we have only just emerged. In this caricature of history, Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of "scientific management," figures as one of the chief villains. His hierarchical control systems and treatment of workers as brainless interchangeable parts stand in diametric opposition to the flattened organizations and "knowledge workers" that are touted by today's management gurus.
Of course, caricatures are based on actual (and usually unattractive) features. And Taylor makes an inviting target: Much of his influence has indeed been godawful. But the full story is much more complicated, and much more interesting. A balanced look at his life and times reveals not a villain but a tragic hero. His innovations ushered in enormous productivity gains, which brought unprecedented affluence to the United States and the nations that followed its lead; at the same time, though, Taylor's system employed methods that misunderstood, and thereby grievously undermined, the full promise of the new mass production economy. It is fair to say that Frederick Taylor's career exemplified the Industrial Revolution he helped to lead: a mixture of beneficent achievements and malign shortcomings.
Robert Kanigel's The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency tells Taylor's story comprehensively and fairly. The length of the book is somewhat forbidding, and in some sections excessive. Kanigel clearly immersed himself in his subject, and at times he is too eager to make sure we know it. Despite the page count, the book is highly readable and on the whole richly rewards the reader's investment of time. If you want to understand the history of American political economy during the 20th century, you really need to know about Frederick Taylor; he is, for good and ill, one of our founding fathers.
Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 to a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family. Until the age of 18, he appeared destined to follow in his father's footsteps as a gentleman of leisure, dividing time between philanthropic projects and managing inherited wealth. Toward this end Taylor had prepped at the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, receiving a traditional classical education, and was poised to enter Harvard. At this point, though, his life took a sharp and unexpected turn: For reasons that remain obscure, he decided to forsake Harvard for a career in industry. In 1874, the training he needed generally wasn't taught in universities; instead, Taylor signed on as an apprentice at a small Philadelphia pump works.
Four years later, his apprenticeship complete, he got a job as a laborer in the machine shop of Midvale Steel. He spent 12 years there, rising quickly through the ranks, first to foreman and ultimately to chief engineer. (In his spare time, it should be mentioned, he and his partner won a doubles title at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship.) At Midvale, he developed and put into place the basic elements of what later came to be known as "scientific management": the breakdown of work tasks into constituent elements; the timing of each element based on repeated stopwatch studies; the fixing of piece rate compensation based on those studies; standardization of work tasks on detailed instruction cards; and generally, the systematic consolidation of the shop floor's brain work in a "planning department."
From Midvale, Taylor went on to become one of the world's first management consultants, his business card proclaiming, "Systematizing Shop Management and Manufacturing Costs a Specialty." Around the turn of the century, Taylor did his last prolonged stint as a corporate employee, spending three years with Bethlehem Iron (later Steel). At Bethlehem, Taylor recorded two great achievements: first, the development with a colleague of a new "high speed" tool steel, a material that allowed machine tools to cut metal at three to four times the previous speeds; and second, the systematization of years of metal-cutting experiments into a special slide rule for calculating machine speed and feed. Both were landmark engineering breakthroughs; putting aside Taylor's management theories, they would have sufficed to make him an important figure in the history of American industrialization.
But Taylor was to become known as much more than an engineer. After leaving Bethlehem–being forced out, more accurately–he more or less retired from day-to-day work. He became instead an evangelist for his management ideas, offering private seminars to corporate leaders from his Philadelphia home. Worldwide fame came in 1910 as a result of a railroad rate increase dispute before the Interstate Commerce Commission. Crusading lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Louis Brandeis, who represented interests opposed to the rate increase, based his argument on Taylor's management system, which he dubbed "scientific management." Brandeis claimed that if the railroads adopted Taylor's methods, they could save a million dollars a day: They didn't need a rate increase; they needed greater efficiency.
Taylor became an instant celebrity. Controversy, though, wasn't far behind. Labor leaders and others denounced "Taylorism" as oppressive and antidemocratic, and a strike at the Watertown Arsenal over the adoption of scientific management led to heated congressional hearings. Bruised by the conflict, Taylor soon withdrew from public life, letting his growing number of disciples carry the battle for "the one best way," a catch-phrase of the movement he launched. He died in 1915.
Taylor's shop management system was adopted in something close to full form in only a few companies; the general thrust of his views, though, permeated American and world industrial society. His writings were translated into dozens of foreign languages. Taylor Societies sprang up everywhere. Along with Henry Ford, he became a personification of American efficiency and industrial might. Even the communists became Taylorites: In 1918 Lenin gave a speech in which he declared, "We must introduce in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and its systematic trial and adaptation."
Before discussing the pros and cons of Taylor's system, it is necessary to grasp the problems it was addressing. The factory floor that Taylor came to at Midvale was typical of its day but a completely alien place from our contemporary perspective. Factory work was done according to the craft system; jobs were "trades," and their secrets and rules of thumb were passed down, slowly and grudgingly, from master to apprentice. The owners and operators of the business really had no idea how their work should be done. They didn't know how tasks were best arranged, they didn't know how to optimize the output of the machines, and they didn't know what pace of output was sustainable. They supplied the workplace and the tools, and through the foremen and shop bosses they prodded their workers, often brutally, to do more faster. Ultimately, though, when the workers told them there wasn't a better or faster way, they lacked the knowledge to prove otherwise.
Workers jealously guarded their shop floor secrets from management because of a fundamental conflict of interest. Compensation generally took the form of piece rates rather than daily or hourly wages, and piece rates were set based on expected output. If managers discovered that work could be done faster or machines could be operated more efficiently, piece rates tended to be reduced (at least in the short run). So a worker's attempt to earn more money by increasing his own output was generally self-defeating: The piece rate would be reduced, and then he and everybody else would have to run harder just to stay in place. This state of affairs encouraged systematic "soldiering"–the deliberate slowdown of work output. (The expression originated as a nautical term, having to do with the laziness of ground troops when they were transported by ship.) Workers who didn't toe the line could expect ostracism if not physical abuse.
Thus, the early industrial factory mixed the dynamism of amazing new technologies with the backwardness of the medieval guild. Capital and labor were separated by a fault line of unresolvable, zero-sum conflict: Management knew it was being cheated but couldn't prove it, while workers knew that management was trying to cheat them. Frederick Taylor lived this conflict as an apprentice, banged his head against it as a foreman, and then resolved to do something about it.
Taylor recognized that knowledge is power. Management had to understand what was happening on the factory floor. Thus, the starting point of scientific management, according to Taylor, was "the deliberate gathering in on the part of those on the management's side of all of the great mass of traditional knowledge, which in the past has been in the heads of the workmen, and in the physical skill and knack of the workmen, which he has acquired through years of experience." Through his notorious time studies and his less well-known metal-cutting experiments, Taylor allowed those who ran the business to pierce the veil of shop practice secrecy.
Taylor wanted more than raw data, though. He wanted to systematize the knowledge that was gained, to replace habit and rules of thumb with precise and usually quantitative analysis. He was convinced that scientific study would reveal a better way–the one best way–of doing things. No task was too mundane for scrutiny. In one celebrated example, Taylor conducted extensive experiments to determine the optimal size of a shovelful of dirt to maximize the total amount shoveled in a day. "In the past the man was first," Taylor said in a famous line, "in the future the system must be first."
To implement the gathering and analysis of all this previously hidden knowledge, Taylor envisioned new kinds of managers who prepared the detailed instruction cards, planned the use of and set the machinery, and generally coordinated who did what, when, and in what order. Taylor bucked the traditional perception of white-collar workers as "nonproductive" by redefining their jobs. Under Taylor's system, shop bosses were no longer browbeaters; they were knowledge workers.
Once management gained control of the production process by consolidating and systematizing information about it, Taylor believed the stage was set for solution of the "labor problem"–the zero-sum conflict between capital and labor over compensation. First of all, the question of how much work could be done would no longer be resolved by a test of wills; it would be resolved by "science," in the form of time studies. Next, differential piece rates would be established so that workers would receive a substantial pay increase if they met management's output targets; furthermore, there would be a strict ban on rolling back piece rates after they had been set "scientifically."
Through achieving substantial gains in productivity and sharing those gains with the workers, Taylor envisioned a way out of the traditional impasse: "The great revolution that takes place in the mental attitude of the two parties under scientific management is that both sides take their eyes off the division of the surplus as the all-important matter, and together turn their attention toward increasing the size of the surplus until this surplus becomes so large that it is unnecessary to quarrel over how it shall be divided." Under scientific management, the old zero-sum rancor would give way to positive-sum mutuality of interest.
So far, so good for Taylor's system. By breaking down the old craft system and subjecting shop practices to rigorous analytical scrutiny, scientific management allowed the incentive-creating signals of the marketplace to penetrate–for the first time–all the way to the factory floor. It is not saying too much to conclude that Taylor opened up a new world for the capitalist discovery process to explore.
And although Taylor's hope that labor-management conflict would disappear proved utopian, the truth is that he only exaggerated his case rather than misstating it. The productivity gains that scientific management and its offspring created did spur rising living standards, and this generalized affluence did in time, if not eliminate class conflict, at least quench its revolutionary combustibility. Once "working class" people owned their own homes with washer/dryers and color TVs and two cars in the driveway, the "labor problem" as a threat to social peace had indeed been solved. Taylor had the vision to prophesy that outcome, and the genius and tenacity to help it come true.
Notwithstanding its considerable virtues, Taylor's system was marred with terrible flaws. While grasping that systematic knowledge gathering was the key to industrial development, Taylor then insisted on imposing needless and perverse limits on that process. He tended to see knowledge work as a finite task, rather than a continuous and never-ending process; moreover, he treated it as the exclusive preserve of an elite few, rather than something that should be diffused as broadly as possible.
The whole notion of "the one best way" betrays a crabbed and static conception of management. In this view, optimal practices are deterministic and stable over time; once they are discovered, all that remains is routine implementation. Needless to say, this approach looks hopelessly retrograde from our Information Age perspective. For helping to build a corporate culture in which standard operating procedures were holy writ and the "not invented here" syndrome reigned supreme, Taylor deserves the opprobrium that is heaped upon him by today's "creative destruction" enthusiasts.
Even worse, Taylor's belief in a rigid separation between planning and doing was antithetical to the integration of the workplace and marketplace that scientific management sought to achieve. There is no mistaking Taylor's views on this subject; he had no use for workers from the neck up. "In our scheme, we do not ask for the initiative of our men," he said. "We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick."
This ruthless top-downism became the norm in American industry, and its effect has been nothing short of disastrous. Taylor's utopian solution became instead a Faustian bargain: We'll bribe you to check your brains at the factory gate. As a result, productivity has been hobbled by cutting off management from all of the potentially useful information that resides in the heads of workers; furthermore, generations of workers have been alienated by a system that treats them as inanimate objects. We are only now beginning to overcome the serious dysfunctions caused by this bargain. Much of the dislocation and pain caused by corporate restructurings over the past decade can be laid at the feet of Frederick Taylor.
And in the broader view, Taylor's misplaced confidence in know-it-all technocrats is of a piece with the great collectivist tragedies of this century. It's not surprising that Lenin was a Taylorite, or that Yevgeni Zamyatin's dystopian We identified Taylor as the chief prophet of its imagined future totalitarian state.
In both his virtues and his flaws, Frederick Taylor was a man of his era. The Industrial Revolution was a time of both prodigious creativity and profound misunderstanding. A new world based on competition and diffused brainpower was being constructed, but its leading builders saw instead a brave new world of all-controlling technocrats. For his part, Taylor did much to unleash creativity, but also to stifle and misdirect it. For better and for worse, in our liberating affluence and our strangling bureaucracy, we are inheritors of Taylor's hopeful, troubled legacy.
Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey (firstname.lastname@example.org) practices trade law in Washington, D.C.