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Frederick Winslow Taylor: One Hundred Years of Managerial Insight Anne M. Blake Wayne State University
James L. Moseley Wayne State University
One hundred years ago, the publication of a small book set off an international firestorm. The book’s author, Frederick Winslow Taylor, is widely recognized as a founder of the modern management movement. His fiery personality and radical approach to business made him a popular yet controversial figure in the United States. However, it was the publication of The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 (Harper and Brothers: New York) that catapulted Frederick Taylor to international fame. Almost overnight, business leaders around the world became obsessed with discovering the “one best way” to do every job. One hundred years later, the influence of the very first business best-seller has trickled into every type of industry in every corner of the world. To celebrate the centennial of the book’s publication it is worthwhile to take a look back at this remarkable man, his little book that changed the world, and his dubious distinction of founding Taylorism.
The Life and Accomplishments of Frederick Taylor Frederick Taylor was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1856. His family was wealthy, although they lived plainly, in accordance with the principles of their Quaker religion. As a child, Taylor spent more than three years traveling throughout Europe with his parents. When he returned to the United States, he attended a prestigious boarding school and planned to attend Harvard University until problems with his eyesight caused him to end his formal education. Instead, he found a job as an apprentice patternmaker at a small pump-manufacturing firm in Philadelphia (Kanigel, 1996). Taylor later wrote “I look back upon the first six months of my apprenticeship as a patternmaker as, on the whole, the most valuable part of my education” (Kanigel, 1996, p. 49).
At the conclusion of his apprenticeship, Taylor used family connections to secure a job at Midvale Steel Works as a machine shop laborer. He was quickly promoted to machinist and then to “gang boss”. It was in this capacity that he first became involved in overseeing the work of other employees (Kanigel, 1996). Taylor received additional promotions over the course of the next few years, holding the job titles of maintenance foreman, shop disciplinarian, master mechanic, chief draftsman, research director, and chief engineer (Kanigel, 1997). By watching the men who worked for him, Taylor became interested in the process of work itself. He noticed that the culture of the shop encouraged “soldiering”, or the purposeful slowing down of work to an easy pace. Taylor pushed the workers to speed up in order to maximize output. They responded by slowing down further. Taylor made repeated attempts to cajole and threaten the workers, which only served to increase their animosity while decreasing their output.
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Finally, Taylor turned to rational scientific inquiry as a solution to his personnel problems. He began a series of experiments aimed at breaking down each job into its functional elements. Using a stopwatch and a clipboard Taylor introduced time-and- motion studies to the factory. While these experiments were unsuccessful at improving Taylor’s relationships with the factory workers, they did eventually revolutionize the world of work.
While Taylor worked long days performing his experiments in the factory, he also had an amazingly productive personal life. In 1881, Taylor won the first doubles tennis tournament at the U.S. National Championship, now referred to as the U.S. Open, with Clarence Clark. In 1883, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering through an unusual correspondence program with Stevens Institute of Technology (Kanigel, 1997). During his lifetime, Taylor applied for and received more than 40 patents for a wide range of products, including a device that maintains tautness in a tennis net, a spoon shaped tennis racket, a Y-shaped two-handled putter for golf, a new kind of railroad car wheel, a steam hammer, a boring and turning mill, and a device that was designed to move growing trees (Kanigel, 1997). He co-wrote a book about reinforced concrete, as well as a series of articles titled “The Making of a Putting Green”.
In 1890 Taylor became the general manager of Manufacturing Investment Company of Philadelphia. Three years later, he went into business for himself as an independent consulting engineer. His focus was helping management find ways to cut costs while improving productivity (Papesh, n.d.). In 1898, Taylor went to work for Bethlehem Steel. While there, he collaborated with Maunsel White to develop a heat treatment process that transformed existing cutting tool alloys into a new kind of steel that retained its hardness at high temperatures and allowed manufacturers to run machines at much higher speeds. Taylor and White received a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for this innovation. While at Bethlehem Steel, Taylor also installed systems of production planning, differential piece rates, and functional foremanship (Nelson, 1980). He was responsible for doubling the stamping mill production and cutting the cost per ton of materials in half. Taylor became embroiled in a series of disputes with other managers at Bethlehem Steel and was forced to leave the company in 1901 (Kanigel, 1996).
For the remainder of his life, Taylor concentrated on developing, marketing, and implementing his theories of scientific management. His blunt, often combative, personality was not suited to collaborative work environments. According to Kanigel (1997), “even his friends used words like ‘tactless’ and ‘pugnacious’ to describe him” (p. 167). Instead, he chose to work independently, as a consultant to industry. He traveled and lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Taylor became a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and was instrumental in the development of Harvard University’s innovative graduate program in business administration (Kanigel, 1997, Lepore, 2009).
In 1910, a group of Eastern railroad companies petitioned the government for a freight rate increase. In the hearings that followed, Louis Brandeis, a future member of the
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United States Supreme Court, dismissed the petitioner’s request, and recommended that they embrace Taylor’s system of scientific management. The publicity surrounding the railroad hearings caused a surge in interest in Taylor and his theories.
In the midst of all this activity Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. The following year, the organized labor movement pressured Congress to call Taylor before a House Committee to investigate his system of shop management. For the next four years, Taylor traveled, lectured and consulted about his principles. In 1915 Taylor contracted influenza while on a speaking tour. He died on March 21, 1915. According to his official biographer, he “was heard to wind his watch” about a half hour before he died (Copley, 1923, p. 452). This was certainly a fitting final act for the man who changed the world with his clipboard and stopwatch.
The Principles of Scientific Management Despite his vast range of accomplishments, it is the publication of The Principles of Scientific Management for which Frederick Taylor is most widely remembered. Taylor developed the major themes of scientific management over the course of several years, and originally intended to publish his theories through the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). However, the members of ASME’s board delayed making a decision on the publication of his work for almost a year, probably due to old grudges and petty differences. After the railroad freight hearings, people began to clamor for more information about Taylor’s ideas, and he grew impatient with ASME. He withdrew the article from consideration by ASME and allowed it to be published by The American Magazine in a series of three issues. Almost immediately the articles were condensed into book form and published by Harper and Brothers in New York. International demand for the book was almost instantaneous. Lavish praise and harsh criticism followed close behind.
To today’s reader, the book seems awkward and poorly written. There are none of the catchy slogans or promises of instant results that are found in many of today’s business “how-to” books. It does not contain a careful articulation of theories or clear progression of ideas. Rather, it is full of rambling stories and repetitive examples. Readers must remember that Taylor was “in temperament, training and experience an engineer- executive, a doer. He was not interested in writing for its own sake” (Person, in Taylor 1947, p. vii).
Once the reader gets past the artless prose, the true message of the book becomes evident. Taylor’s philosophy is “that the greatest permanent prosperity for the workman, coupled with the greatest prosperity for the employer, can be brought about only when the work of the establishment is done with the smallest combined expenditure of human effort” (p. 4). In order to reach the goal of achieving the greatest prosperity for both the employer and the employee, Taylor proposes four principles. These are to: (a) scientifically examine each element of a job, which replaces the old “rule of thumb” method of work, (b) systematically select, train, teach, and develop each individual worker, (c) work cooperatively with the worker to ensure that the job is being done in the best possible
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way, and (d) give the manager the responsibility to determine how the job should be done, while giving the worker the responsibility to do the job.
Task allocation is one of the fundamental principles of scientific management. It is also the principle that has drawn the most criticism during the past century. Task allocation is the process of breaking a job down into smaller and smaller components in order to help the planner determine the optimum method for performing the task. Critics claim that this reductionist approach dehumanizes workers (Sandrone, 1997). In reality, Taylor expresses concern about the worker’s well-being throughout the book. He is emphatic that “the task is always so regulated that the man who is well suited to his job will thrive while working at this rate during a long term of years, and grow happier and more prosperous, instead of being overworked” (Taylor, p. 39). Admittedly, Taylor had a limited view of human motivation. He believed that monetary incentives were the only way to induce employees to work more efficiently.
The other major principle of scientific management is the separation of the planning function from the work function. Taylor did not believe that low level supervisors and line workers were qualified to plan how the work should be done. In part, this stemmed from the fact that a high percentage of factory workers at the time were recent immigrants, many of whom were poorly educated and not fluent in English. Taylor advocated the creation of planning departments that were staffed with engineers. Based on this, critics accused Taylor of a strong bias in favor of management.
Impact of Principles of Scientific Management During the years immediately after the publication of the book, Taylor’s work was discussed and debated largely in terms of industrial production (Nelson, 1992). Nelson identifies several ways in which scientific management changed factory work permanently. First, front-line supervisors lost much of their authority to higher-level managers. In addition, employees were required to spend more of their day in active production due to a decrease in delays and shut downs. Fewer subjective decisions and personal judgment calls were made on the factory floor. Individual workers were able to exercise less personal discretion in relation to their jobs. In most situations, earnings increased. Some unskilled jobs were eliminated since improved scheduling and planning reduced the need to keep large groups of laborers on hand at all times. Finally, people eventually became less fearful that massive job losses were on the horizon as a result of the new systems.
Prior to World War I, the growth of scientific management in Europe followed the same course as it did in the United States. Individual engineers and industrialists studied the principles and implemented them in their own factories. Many of them came to the United States to meet Taylor and see his methods first hand. Company owners and executives who were interested in short-term results were often at odds with engineers who wanted to develop Taylor’s methods with a broader perspective. Taylor-like incentive wage plans became very popular in Europe, Japan, and Russia. Henri Le Chatelier was Taylor’s most devoted European follower. Alexsie Gastev, a Russian revolutionary, introduced
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the concepts to Lenin, who embraced scientific management as a method of achieving “cultural revolution” (Nelson, 1992).
Great Britain was the only major European country to remain slightly aloof from the efficiency craze. All of the major British engineering societies chose either to disregard Taylor’s work or to criticize it harshly (Nelson, 1992). There are several theories that attempt to explain Britain’s lack of enthusiasm. Nelson suggests that British executives were preoccupied with industrial relations and labor unrest before World War I. They carefully monitored the conflicts between Taylor and the unions in the United States and “were ready to react whenever a stopwatch appeared” (p. 19). Alternatively, the lukewarm reception that scientific management received in Great Britain may have been due to the natural conservatism that characterized British executives of the time or to the lack of a powerful British champion who played a role similar to that of Le Chatelier in France.
With the onset of World War I in 1914, Europe and the United States diverged in their application of scientific management principles. Leaders in Europe quickly had to expand their industrial output, and they had to manage scarce resources efficiently. As a result, they were forced to find innovative ways to reduce waste and hire unconventional employees. The labor shortage forced manufacturers to work closely with unions. The result was a mixture of scientific and personnel management practices that Taylor might not have recognized. The United States did not experience these pressures because they joined the war much later and had a large pool of labor and materials from which to draw.
After Taylor’s death the scientific management movement began to evolve in several ways. During his lifetime, Taylor had a bitter relationship with organized labor. After his death, Taylor’s followers reconciled with union leaders and endorsed the concept of collective bargaining. In addition, the scientific management movement gradually began to merge with the burgeoning personnel management movement. By 1920, most major companies had growing personnel or human resource departments. Finally, within the United States, the movement began to be embraced by high level members of the government.
By the mid 1920s, banks, insurance companies, government agencies, academic institutions, and retail enterprises were using principles of scientific management to structure their organizations. By the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, industry viewed scientific management as a utilitarian way to increase mass production and to manage a non-skilled work force. This trend continued throughout the 1930’s as manufacturers searched for ways to stay in business during tough economic times (Nelson, 1992). The philosophical elements of the movement were temporarily downplayed as the reality of the depression and subsequent World War took precedence. In the 1940’s a new generation of scholars, engineers, and industrialists took a renewed interest in scientific management. The successful and dramatic increase in mass production techniques during World War II was an indirect, but indisputable, result of Taylor’s work.
While the principles associated with Taylor enjoyed wide acceptance, his reputation
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suffered posthumously. He was widely derided as a biased, anti-worker elitist. Nelson (1992) believes that, as a result, the scientific management movement will always be perceived as important but defective. This perception has largely continued for the past half century, resulting in Taylor being reduced to a one line reference in many management textbooks. Recently, however, Taylor has experienced a surge in popularity as historians strive to understand and explain the value of his ideas within the context of his generation.
Influence on the Field of Management Frederick Winslow Taylor has been called the “Father of Modern Management” (Makamson, 2010). Perhaps his most enduring contribution to the field of management is the fact that he firmly established management “as something done by trained professionals” that is a “subject of legitimate scholarship” (Makamson, p. 2). In today’s world, management usually operates through the functions of planning, organizing, leading/directing, and controlling/ monitoring. Table 1 describes and matches each of these functions with a corresponding quote from The Principles of Scientific Management. While some management theorists have been quick to minimize Taylor’s contribution to the field, it is clear that he had each of these functions firmly in mind as he articulated his theories to the world.
Frederick Taylor was the original organizational theorist and first management “guru”. He wrote The Principles of Scientific Management:
“to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules, and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all kinds of human activities, from our simplest individual acts to the work of our great corporations. And…to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding” (1947, p. 7).
Gary Hamel, Visiting Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School since 1983, says this:
The development of modern management theory is the story of two quests: to make management more scientific, and to make it more humane. It is wrong to look at the later quest as somehow much more enlightened than the former. Indeed, they are the yin and yang of business. The unprecedented capacity of twentieth century industry to create wealth rests squarely on the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. While some may disavow Taylor, his rational, deterministic impulses live on. Indeed, reengineering is simply late twentieth century Taylorism. Though the focus of reengineering is on the process, rather than the individual task, the motivation is the same: to simplify, to remove unnecessary effort, and to do more with less” (Business: The Ultimate Resource, 2nd ed., p. 1151).
Kiechel (2010) believes that the intense focus on strategic planning in industry today is a result of “Greater Taylorism”, which is “the corporation’s application of sharp-penciled
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analytics…to the totality of its functions and processes” (p. 4). With his emphasis on research, planning, communications, standards, incentives, and feedback, it is possible to track Taylor’s influence to every sector. Business, government, health care and education have all incorporated the principles into the fabric of their operations. One hundred years after the publication of his most famous work, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s subtle influence is as persistent as the ticking of his ever-present stopwatch.
Table 1. Management Concepts: The Four Functions of Management
Definition of Function
Quote from Principles of Scientific Management
Planning Assess current position and where organization should be in future. Determine appropriate course of action.
“All of the planning which under the old system was done by the workman, as a result of his personal experience, must of necessity under the new system be done by the management in accordance with the laws of science. The man in the planning room, whose specialty under scientific management is planning ahead, invariably finds that the work can be done better and more economically by a subdivision of the labor” (p. 38).
Organizing Get prepared and organized. Make optimum use of the resources required to successfully carry out plans.
“Almost every act of the workman should be preceded by one or more preparatory acts of the management which enable him to do his work better and quicker than he otherwise could” (p. 260).
Supervise actions of staff.
“When one proceeds to study each workman as an individual, if the workman fails to do his task, some competent teacher should be sent to show him exactly how his work can best be done, to guide, help, and encourage him, and, at the same time, to study his possibilities as a workman” (pp. 69-70).
Establish performance standards. Report and evaluate actual performance.
“The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work (p. 39). Every element in any way connected with the work was carefully studied and recorded (p. 55). As each workman came into the works in the morning, he (received) two pieces of paper, the second of which gave the history of his previous day’s work” (p. 68).
All quotes from The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.
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References Copley, F.B. (1923). Frederick W. Taylor: Father of Scientific Management. Harper and Brothers: New York.
Kanigel, R. (1996). Frederick Taylor’s Apprenticeship. The Wilson Quarterly, 20, 3, 44-51.
Kanigel, R. (1997). The one best way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency. New York: Viking Penguin.
Kiechel, W. (2010). The lords of strategy: The secret intellectual history of the new corporate world. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Lepore, J. (2009). Not so fast. The New Yorker. Downloaded at http://www.newyorker. com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/10/12/091012crat_atlarge_lepore
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Nelson, D. (1992). A mental revolution: Scientific management since Taylor. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Papesh, M.E. (n.d.). Frederick Winslow Taylor. Retrieved from http://stfrancis.edu/ba/ghkickul/stuwebs/bbios/biograph/fwtaylor.htm
Sandrone, V. (1997). F.W.Taylor and scientific management. Retrieved from http://www.skymark.com/resources/leaders/taylor.asp
Taylor, F.W. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper and Brothers: New York.
Taylor, F.W. (1947). Scientific Management. Harper and Brothers: New York.
“The principles of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor” (2006). Business: The ultimate resource,2nd ed. UK: A&C Black Publishers Ltd.
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