Frederick Winslow Taylor

The man who made us all work like this…

BBC History Magazine, June 2003

One of the most characteristic developments of the 20th century – in social change, in consumerism and in the deadly new efficiency of war – was arguably the rise of industrial mass-production. That makes this a key centenary year.

Because the year 1903 – exactly a century ago – marked the true beginning of mass-production in a series of developments at the leading edge of management thinking. Henry Ford founded the company that bears his name and started experimenting with ideas that would lead to the assembly line, William Morris decided to specialise in motor cars – and the man behind ‘scientific efficiency’ and time-and-motion study first unveiled his ideas to American engineers.

It was 23 June 1903, in the United States Hotel in Saratoga, New York, that Frederick Winslow Taylor rose to address a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the subject of ‘Shop Management’.

By ‘shop’, Taylor meant ‘shop floor’. As far as he was already known to the meeting, it was as a controversial industrial manager who was supposed to have worked miracles of productivity at the giant Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, churning out iron plating for the world’s battleships.

The way Ford’s assembly line spreads out of the factory to society as a whole was described as ‘fordism’ by the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. We are now in a post-Fordist world. The robots have taken over the factories – the masses don’t work there any more – and we can have any colour we like, despite Ford’s insistence that it had to be black. But we are not necessarily in a ‘post-Taylor’ one.

The ideas that became ‘scientific management’ meant breaking every task down into units, measuring how long they take and setting targets for workers to meet. These techniques have somehow broken out of factories, and you can see them working in the new call-centres, and in the NHS targets, school league tables, sustainability indicators and the battery of statistics by which public services are now run all over the Western world.

That is why a cultural historian like Martha Banta could describe Taylor’s 1903 lecture as “one of the key documents shaping … modern industrialisation”, and leading management writer Peter Drucker as “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.”

Watches have always been symbols of industrial servitude, according to the historian E. P. Thompson, in his classice 1967 essay on Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism. But there is is no doubt about Taylor’s influence.

Forced by failing eyesight to leave Harvard in 1878, Taylor went to work at the Midvale steel plant in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was then one of the biggest industrial centres on the planet, the second biggest city in the USA, with a population of nearly 850,000 and export figures more than five per cent of the exports of the whole nation. In the six years before Taylor started work, 3,000 miles of rail had been laid across America.

The city’s working population could be seen streaming off the dirty black ferries of the Delaware in the early mornings or onto the horse-trams, bound for the great smelters, locomotive works and carpet factories that were the source of the city’s wealth.

When Frederick Taylor went to work at Midvale, the skilled craftsman, diurect heir to the medieval craft system, was the respected heart of any factory. Taylor was quickly promoted to sub-foreman, but he was determined to force former shop floor colleagues into more productive methods earned him death threats. “In all such cases, however, a display of timidity is apt to increase rather than diminish the risk,” wrote Taylor later. “So the writer told these men to say to the other men in the shop that he proposed to walk home every night right up that railway track; that he never had carried and never would carry any weapon of any kind, and that they could shoot and be damned.” They never did.

He laboriously analysed which tools were most effective and what kinds of steel were most productive to calculate how much work each employee should do each day. ‘Scientific management’ meant regimented experimentation and Taylor’s experiments went like this:

1. Break down any job into its component parts – as far as it would go, to the basic movements.

2. Next, time each of those parts with a stopwatch to find out just how quickly they can be achieved by the quickest and most efficient workers.

3. Get rid of any unnecessary parts of the job.

4. Add in about 40 per cent to the time, for unavoidable delays and rest.

5. Organise pay scales so that the most efficient people can earn considerably more by meeting the optimum times, while the average have to struggle to keep up.

This was the formula for efficiency that led to job cards, time clocks, inventory control and all the other paraphernalia of 20th century manufacturing.

This was the system that made him famous at Bethlehem, where he put his ideas fully into practice. Bethlehem at the time boasted the largest machine shop in the world and a 90ft steam hammer – also the world’s largest. But the American steel industry was reeling from a price-fixing scandal for armour plating, and desperately needed to find some way of cutting costs. Bethlehem’s hopes rested on Taylor.

His big experiment started in earnest in March 1899, with his ten ‘best’ men, who immediately refused to carry pig iron on that basis and were sacked. Taylor then tried Dutch and Irish workers. They wouldn’t budge either.

By offering higher wages there and then, Taylor and his assistants managed to attract volunteers, but by the end of May he reckoned he could only really describe a miserable three out of his team of 40 as ‘first class men’.

It soon became clear that even the three strongest men could only manage to carry weight for exactly 42 per cent of the day. Any more, and they got exhausted. All except one.

He was called Henry Noll – or Knolle, according to which account you read – and Taylor named him ‘Schmidt’ in almost everything he wrote, describing him as an ox and “stupid and phlegmatic”. Noll was Taylor’s great example: he was what he really wanted working men to be – focused, uncomplicated and compliant.

“If you are a high priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you tomorrow, from morning to night. When he tells you to pick up a pig, and walk, you pick it up and walk,” Taylor told Noll. “And when he tells you to sit down and rest you sit down. You do that straight through the day. And what’s more, no back talk.”

Noll was Taylor’s breakthrough. Taylor’s contention was that workers generally kept their employers in the dark about how hard they can work. Once he had identified what was humanly possible, he could fix day-rates so that the workforce could earn more – if they worked more efficiently. By 1901, the workforce at Bethlehem was handling three times as much material as before and their wages were 60 per cent higher. He reduced the number of shovellers in their two-mile goods yard from 500 to 140.

But it wasn’t enough. Taylor fell foul of management in-fighting, and they were already angry with him for all his sackings. As well as running the plant, Bethlehem needed workers to rent their homes, and Taylor sometimes seemed as if he was intent on emptying the company villages of tenants.

After his surprise dismissal in 1901, Taylor never worked as an employee again. Despite being the father of mass-production, he was also the first of the breed of workers that would eventually displace the whole concept. He was the first of the new breed of knowledge workers that would undermine his own legacy – the first management consultant.

After the 1903 lecture, Taylor came to national prominence thanks to the future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who realised ‘scientific management’ could win his case against the railroad companies for raising fares – in fact, it was Brandeis who coined the term ‘scientific management’ that Taylor embraced.

But his methods were extremely controversial. A series of strikes followed the introduction of his ideas in the vital American armaments factories, which in turn led to a series of gruelling congressional hearings.

During one of these, Taylor was subjected to eight hours of continuous questioning, and the end of which he lost his temper so uncontrollably that the record was scrubbed. He left immediately afterwards to take his wife – who was suffering from serious depression – on a Mediterranean cruise.

Three years later, he was dead. He died of influenza in hospital in 1915, in the early hours of the morning after his 59th birthday, immediately after winding his precious stop-watch.

Taylor was a brilliant innovator. When he died, he held 40 lucrative patents of his own inventions – a bobsled brake, a special tennis racket with a spoon-shaped head, and – a gadget that stopped him rolling onto his back in his sleep. Sleeping on his back caused him to dream what he called ‘disturbing thoughts’.

And although Ford always claimed never to have read him, the first assembly line – at Ford’s Dearborn plant in 1913 – would probably have been impossible without Taylor and his endless measuring. But then Ford said he didn’t read books (“They muss up my mind,” he said).

But both men had things in common. They both disliked financiers, and both claimed to be on the side of the workers. “What really happens is that, with the aid of the science … and through the instructions of the teachers (the experts) each workman … is enable to do a much higher, more interesting and finally more developing and more profitable kind of work than he was before able to do,” said Taylor.

But the workforces didn’t see it that way. And they won: Congress banned time-and-motion study methods from government factories in 1915.

The trouble was that Taylor’s ideal worker wasn’t really human at all. He was a cog – an automaton who did what he was told. “Every day, year in and year out, each man should ask himself over and over again, two questions,” said Taylor in his standard lecture. “First, ‘What is the name of the man I am now working for?’ And having answered this definitely then ‘What does this man want me to do, right now?’ Not, ‘What ought I to do in the interests of the company I am working for?’ Not, ‘What are the duties of the position I am filling? Not, ‘What did I agree to do when I came here?’ Not, ‘What should I do for my own best interest?’ but plainly and simply, ‘What does this man want me to do?'”

Hand in hand with this assumption – that the workforce had nothing to offer but brawn – was the enthusiasm for standardisation.

“My dream is that the time will come when every drill press will be speeded just so,” his assistant Carl Barth told the congressional hearings in 1914, “and every planer, every lathe the world over will be harmonised just like musical pitches are the same all over the world… so that we can standardise and say that for drilling a one-inch hole the world over will be done with the same speed.”

But it caught the totalitarian spirit of the time. Mussolini set up a propaganda arm of his government to promote Taylorism. Taylor’s ideas inspired Lenin’s director of the Central Institute of Labour, poet Andrei Gastev, to write Factory Whistles, Rails and Tower based on the ideal of “subordinating people to mechanisms and the mechenisation of man”.

Lenin wrote in Pravda in 1918 that Taylor combined “the refined cruelty of bourgeois exploitation with a number of the most valuable scientific attainments. We must introduce in Russia the study and the teaching of the Taylor system, and its systematic trial and adaption.”

In the Cold War, the industry behind both American consumerism and Stalin’s grandiose planning had Taylorism at their heart.

“The First Five Year Plan was written largely by American Taylorists and directly or indirectly they built some two-thirds of Soviet industry,” said the cultural historian John Ralston Saul (now Canadian governor-general) in his 1995 Massey Lectures. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was thus in many ways the collapse of Scientific Management.”

American historians tended to pay more attention to Taylor than the British, with their traditional emphasis on the first Industrial Revolution.

They argue about his relative importance compared to the other time-and-motion pioneers Frank and Lilian Gilbreth – who had the benefit of the 1950 Hollywood film about them, Cheaper by the Dozen.

But by then, experience of how mass production could be misused – in the mechanical destruction of the Western Front and the concentration camps – Taylor’s reputation had begun to suffer. If Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World held up Fordism to ridicule, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) distopia – where every mouthful of food has to be chewed exactly 50 times – is hitting back at Taylor.

By 1973, Keith Aufhauser’s study was arguing that Taylor had simply borrowed his methods from the slave plantations. The idea that Taylor was actually de-skilling his workers – by refusing to let them think – was first put forward the following year by the Marxist historian Harry Braverman. It’s now the standard criticism.

But since then, there have been suspicions that Braverman’s pre-Taylor idyll never really existed. Peter Drucker, probably the most influential management writer since Taylor, argues that Taylor shares the honour of having as much influence on the 20th century as Freud and Darwin – more even than Marx.

The rehabilitators say that, whatever his faults, Taylor was responsible – maybe more than anyone else – for the unprecedented wealth created by 20th century industry. Between 1907 and his death, manufacturing efficiency per employee went up by a terrifying 33 per cent every year. In some ways, the modern industrial world has been basking in his success ever since.

How relevant is he today, given the demise of his assumptions and the industrial edifice he created? We don’t have to look far. Call centres, fast food systems, and the argument about targets and indicators in exam results and the NHS. All owe their existence to Taylor’s questionable but potent legacy.


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