Fredrick Winslow Taylor Gets a Bum Rap

frederick_winslow_taylor_cropFredrick Winslow Taylor is recognized as the father of scientific management, sometimes called “Taylorism”, the application of which has been responsible for tremendous increases in productivity and standards of living for millions of people.

“Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do.”  -Peter Drucker

As outlined in Wikipedia, the conventional view of Taylor’s approach to management consists of four principles, including a strict division of labor between labor and management:

  1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.

  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.

  3. Provide “Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task” (Montgomery 1997: 250).

  4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

Through the early 1900’s, Taylor was an inspiration to the Progressive movement.  Today, however, he and his approach are often criticized as being dehumanizing, treating workers like robots, setting up a ruling class of manager/planners, and otherwise abusing labor.  In some ways, the general perception is that of a sort of smart robber baron who found a more scientific way to exploit labor.

The other day, I decided to read what Taylor himself had to say in his 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management (Excerpts below are from the free Kindle edition). To my surprise, Taylor comes across a lot more collaborative and supportive of labor than you would expect from reading about him today.  I’ve highlighted key phrases in bold.  Here’s Taylor on management’s key objective:

The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.

At the opening of the book, Taylor is actually something of a proto-environmentalist, arguing that increasing the efficiency of labor is as important as conserving natural resources:

We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight. But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient, and which Mr. Roosevelt refers to as a, lack of “national efficiency,” are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated. We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of material things, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little. As yet there has been no public agitation for “greater national efficiency,” no meetings have been called to consider how this is to be brought about. And still there are signs that the need for greater efficiency is widely felt.

He writes about making sure that workers have tools that accurately fit their work, make efficient movements, get adequate breaks, and are paid fairly.  Managers and planners need to scientifically study the work and collaborate with workers, in order to train them to do their best. Taylor draws parallels between a well-trained workman and a surgeon:

Now, when through all of this teaching and this minute instruction the work is apparently made so smooth and easy for the workman, the first impression is that this all tends to make him a mere automaton, a wooden man. As the workmen frequently say when they first come under this system, “Why, I am not allowed to think or move without some one interfering or doing it for me!” The same criticism and objection, however, can be raised against all other modern subdivision of labor. It does not follow, for example, that the modern surgeon is any more narrow or wooden a man than the early settler of this country.

The frontiersman, however, had to be not only a surgeon, but also an architect, house-builder, lumberman, farmer, soldier, and doctor, and he had to settle his law cases with a gun. You would hardly say that the life of the modern surgeon is any more narrowing, or that he is more of a wooden man than the frontiersman. The many problems to be met and solved by the surgeon are just as intricate and difficult and as developing and broadening in their way as were those of the frontiersman. And it should be remembered that the training of the surgeon has been almost identical in type with the teaching and training which is given to the workman under scientific management.

The surgeon, all through his early years, is under the closest supervision of more experienced men, who show him in the minutest way how each element of his work is best done. They provide him with the finest implements, each one of which has been the subject of special study and development, and then insist upon his using each of these implements in the very best way. All of this teaching, however, in no way narrows him. On the contrary he is quickly given the very best knowledge of his predecessors; and, provided (as he is, right from the start) with standard implements and methods which represent the best knowledge of the world up to date, he is able to use his own originality and ingenuity to make real additions to the world’s knowledge, instead of reinventing things which are old.

In a similar way the workman who is cooperating with his many teachers under scientific management has an opportunity to develop which is at least as good as and generally better than that which he had when the whole problem was “up to him” and he did his work entirely unaided.

At one point, Taylor calls for the “the accurate study of the motives of men”, presaging the breakthroughs in behavioral economics to come almost 100 years later.  He also cautions against blindly copying the mechanisms of scientific management without it’s underlying philosophy of cooperation and improvement:

The history of the development of scientific, management up to date, however, calls for a word of warning. The mechanism of management must not be mistaken for its essence, or underlying philosophy. Precisely the same mechanism will in one case produce disastrous results and in another the most beneficent. The same mechanism which will produce the finest results when made to serve the underlying principles of scientific management, will lead to failure and disaster if accompanied by the wrong spirit in those who are using it. Hundreds of people have already mistaken the mechanism of this system for its essence.

[The philosophy is..] First. The development of a true science. Second. The scientific selection of the workman. Third. His scientific education and development. Fourth. Intimate friendly cooperation between the management and the men.

When, however the elements of this mechanism, such as time study, functional foremanship etc., are used without being accompanied by the true philosophy of management, the results are in many cases disastrous. And, unfortunately, even when men who are thoroughly in sympathy with the principles of scientific management undertake to change too rapidly from the old type to the new, without heeding the warnings of those who have had years of experience in making this change, they frequently meet with serious troubles, and sometimes with strikes, followed by failure.

Done right, the system works for management, labor, and the whole people:

After all, however, facts are in many cases more convincing than opinions or theories, and it is a significant fact that those workmen who have come under this system during the past thirty years have invariably been satisfied with the increase in pay, which they have received, while their employers have been equally pleased with their increase in dividends. The writer is one of those who believes that more and more will the third party (the whole people), as it becomes acquainted with the true facts, insist that justice shall be done to all three parties. It will demand the largest efficiency from both employers and employees. It will no longer tolerate the type of employer who has his eye on dividends alone, who refuses to do his full share of the work and who merely cracks his whip over the heads of his workmen and attempts to drive them into harder work for low pay. No more will it tolerate tyranny on the part of labor which demands one increase after another in pay and shorter hours while at the same time it becomes less instead of more efficient.

Taylor, a bit modestly, sums it all up:

Scientific management does not necessarily involve any great invention, nor the discovery of new or startling facts. It does, however, involve a certain combination of elements which have not existed in the past, namely, old knowledge so collected, analyzed, grouped, and classified into laws and rules that it constitutes a science; accompanied by a complete change in the mental attitude of the working men as well as of those on the side of the management, toward each other, and toward their respective duties and responsibilities. Also, a new division of the duties between the two sides and intimate, friendly cooperation to an extent that is impossible under the philosophy of the old management. And even all of this in many cases could not exist without the help of mechanisms which have been gradually developed.

It is no single element, but rather this whole combination, that constitutes scientific management, which may be summarized as:   Science, not rule of thumb.   Harmony, not discord.   Cooperation, not individualism.   Maximum output, in place of restricted output.   The development of each man to his greatest efficiency and prosperity.

The writer wishes to again state that: “The time is fast going by for the great personal or individual achievement of any one man standing alone and without the help of those around him. And the time is coming when all great things will be done by that type of cooperation in which each man performs the function for which he is best suited, each man preserves his own individuality and is supreme in his particular function, and each man at the same time loses none of his originality and proper personal initiative, and yet is controlled by and must work harmoniously with many other men.”


Sounds a lot like the empowered knowledge worker of the 21st century, actually!  All in all, Taylor was a lot more modern and more truly progressive than we give him credit for today.  I recommend reading his book for yourself.

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