Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) consolidated a system of managerial authority, often referred to as scientific management, that encouraged a shift in knowledge of production from the workers to the managers.
His system broke up industrial production into very small and highly regulated steps and required that workers obey the instructions of managers concerning the proper way to perform these very specific steps. Taylor determined these steps through careful scientific observations, his most significant individual contribution to scientific management. He used these observations to compare the pace at which various workers completed tasks. Taylor's system of management atomized, or separated workers from each other. Workers in his system were given highly detailed work instructions that Taylor's scientific studies had determined to be the very best—that is most efficient—way to perform the specific, isolated, task. Workers became parts of a larger machine and they were expected to understand that their interests were in accord with the interests of managers. This "mental revolution" of interests was, Taylor believed, the most significant contribution of scientific management, in that it reduced management-worker strife.
Born into an economically established old Philadelphia Quaker family, he was the youngest of eleven children. He attended Germantown private school. At sixteen, after a three-year trip through Europe with his family, he was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, in preparation for Harvard University. After passing his Harvard entrance examinations with honors, he suffered severe eyestrain that precluded his attendance there. On the advice of eye doctors, he went to work for a small machine shop in Philadelphia, where he learned the trades of pattern maker and machinist, after which he took a position at the Midvale Steel Works in 1878. It was here that Taylor eventually became foreman of the machine shop, with expert knowledge of the ways of the work floor. He promptly set out to destroy those ways, particularly the "soldiering" of labor. That is, Taylor knew that workers tended to do much less work than they could really produce; he wanted to increase their productive capacity. Workers resisted his efforts but, after three years, Taylor seems to have succeeded in raising production through constant managerial pressure. His next decade at Midvale was spent in careful, scientific study of these problems (production and worker resentment). He wanted to increase output without having to drive the workers.
In 1881 Taylor published an essay on metal cutting that generated a great deal of attention by engineers because of its rigorous examination of the individual steps involved in cutting metal. In 1895 he began to publish papers on schemes to increase worker incentive. He successfully combined these interests in a June 1903 presentation to 350 mechanical engineers in Saratoga, New York. This essay would stand as his most complete statement of scientific management. Martha Banta called the Saratoga essay, "one of the key documents shaping modern industrialization." The success of this essay propelled Taylor to the presidency of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1906.
In spite of this honor and his success among engineers, Taylor's work was rarely known outside of the community of industrial engineers until lawyer, reformer, and future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis tapped his ideas to help in the Interstate Commerce Commission hearings concerning railroad rates. He used Taylor's scientific management methods as an example of progressive management techniques that could ease the strain on workers even as it raised their pay and increased profits for owners. In 1910, Brandeis argued before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that wage increases did not necessitate increases in railroad rates. He argued that properly administered railroads, that is, those governed according to the principles of Taylor, did not need to raise rates to increase wages. The Eastern Rate Case, as it came to be known, stimulated a great deal of interest in notions of efficiency. Taylor credited Brandeis with the successful promotion of the system. "I have rarely seen a new movement started with such great momentum as you have given this one," Taylor wrote to Brandeis.
Brandeis, who invented the term 'scientific management,' wrote to fellow lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Felix Frankfurter, on February 27, 1911, about his work with the ICC and expressing his belief that scientific management exemplified the future of social order. "The Commission did, I think, quite as much as they could, and rather more than I thought they would with the efficiency argument. They accepted the fundamental principles that improvements in economy and management were possible, and that they must be made before the need would be recognized. Scientific management will follow that inevitably." It did generally follow, and was helped in its inevitability by the 1911 publication of Principles of Scientific Management, which combined and set out the various elements of Taylor's program to increase worker efficiency.
Scientific management was the system Taylor devised, borrowing freely from other managerial programs, to increase worker productivity without constant riding by managers. Applicators of Taylor's system first studied a job with attention to the minimum necessary steps needed to complete the task. Each step was then scientifically studied in order to determine the most time efficient means of performing it. Managers could total the time it would optimally take to perform a job by adding the time it should take to perform every step. Workers who could not meet this optimum time would be removed from the job. In his 1947 introduction to the collected works of Taylor, Harlow Person claimed that Taylor's methods involved the "discovery by experiment of the best way of performing and the proper time for every operation and every component unit of an operation in the light of the state of the art, the best material, tool, machine, manipulation of tool or machine, and the best flow of work and sequence of unit operations."
Taylor believed that such a system would give managers more power over workers by removing the guesswork from accounts of performance time and by reducing jobs to their component parts in such a way that workers no longer had the skilled knowledge with which to resist the demands of management. Manager's would possess the knowledge and workers would perform their scripted steps. Person explained that Taylor's system created "a new division of labor between management and workers: the assignment to management of the responsibility for discovering the best ways of performing units of operations, and the further responsibility of planning operations and actually making available at the proper time and place, and in the proper quantity, the materials, tools, instructions and other facilities required by the workers." Workers isolated in managerially-governed assembly lines would have no group of fellow workers to rely on to slow down production and would be forced to deal with management individually, a transformation that Taylor believed would make them internalize the perspective of managers as their own.
Taylor's attempt to create new ways of thinking and acting was one of his most significant contributions to the growing science of management, and best exemplifies the intellectual importance of his organization of the workplace. "The most stirring part of Taylor's testimony before the House committee," Person claimed, "is that section in which he develops the thought that true scientific management requires a mental revolution on the parts of management and of workers." This intellectual revolution would bring the perspective of management to the workers and, in this way, workers would begin to understand their interest as being the same as management. "Therefore, true scientific management calls for a unifying point of view and a unity of interests and of efforts seldom present in a particular establishment," Person concluded. Taylor designed his system to produce the understanding and desire to be a good worker according to the needs of management.
This mental revolution was not isolated to the shop floor but extended into all realms of life. The proper arrangement of work would create the proper citizen, he believed. "The writer's observation, however, would lead him to the conclusion that most men tend to become more instead of less thrifty when they receive the proper increase for an extra hard day's work." Taylor told a Congressional Committee questioner who was concerned that increased wages would make workers less frugal. "They live rather better, begin to save money, become more sober, and work more steadily. And this certainly forms one of the strongest reasons for advocating this type of management." Scientific management promised a mental revolution in the relationship of worker/manager, citizen/government and individual/community. "Taylor's development of a science of management," claims William Akin, "moved logically from the microcosm of work, to the organization of the factory, and beyond to society." Scientific management, like much of the progressive movement, promised to create within citizens the desire to behave.
Taylor's productive worker was also a remarkably sober worker. "A careful inquiry into the condition of these men when away from work developed the fact that out of the whole gang only two were said to be drinking men. The fact is that a steady drinker would find it almost impossible to keep up with the pace which was set, so that they were practically all sober." The discipline of scientific management constructed a citizen with particular habits, tastes, and character.
"It is not a question of producing physical changes," Taylor wrote in a piece published posthumously, "but rather of working a great mental revolution in large numbers of men, and any such change demands time, and a large amount of time." In 1915 Morris Cooke, an associate of Taylor's, reminded readers concerning the application of scientific management to governmental institutions that "nothing has been so sufficiently studied as to have reached even an approximately scientific standard. All that can be said is that we have started on the long road." Taylor, he reminded readers, took 26 years to study the cutting of metal; the application in other fields, including Cooke's field of political society, would take at least that long. In 1940, Cooke and CIO vice-president Philip Murray suggested that methods of scientific management offered a light at the end of the tunnel of social fragmentation: "This book is published at a period of world-wide disillusionment. In one field after another the devastating conclusion has been reached that former ways of doing things have been the wrong ones, with results sometimes worse than futile. Certainly no one viewing the American industrial scene dispassionately can avoid the conclusion that there is a better way." Taylorism, they and many others believed, pointed the way to a better workplace and a better society.
Taylor's methods would be tried and applied to an endless range of activities, including education, military discipline, home economics, ergonomics, and medicine. For example, James Phinney Munroe, president of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education, began his 1912 book, New Demands in Education, with a statement of the value of efficiency for education: "The fundamental demand in education, as in everything else is for efficiency—physical efficiency, mental efficiency, moral efficiency." Principals and school administrators around the world, adopted versions of efficient education that bore at least a general relation to Taylor's methods. C. A. Fullerton even presented a paper at the 1912 National Education Association meeting entitled, "The Principles of Scientific Management Applied to Teaching Music in Public Schools." Even the activities of surgeons were studied by Taylor's associate Frank Gilbreth, who had transformed brick laying through Taylorian scientific studies. "If you were laying brick for me," he told one surgeon, "you wouldn't hold your job ten minutes."
Much of the debate surrounding the adoption of Taylor's methods disappeared after the 1920s, but the method continued. The disappearance of the debate reveals a widespread acceptance of much of the power and authority that Taylorism had constructed. The pressures of World War II, in fact, drove wider acceptance of scientific management and made Taylorism one of the most significant aspects of American (and much of the rest of the world's) social organization—connecting people through work and uniting their viewpoints around the perspective of efficient production.
Banta, Martha Taylored Lives, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Cooke, Morris Llewellyn and Philip Murray, Organized Labor and Production, Harper and Brothers, 1940.
Copley, Frank Barkley Frederick W. Taylor: Father of Scientific Management, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1993.
Derber, Milton The American Idea of Industrial Democracy, University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Haber, Samuel. Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920, University of Chicago, 1964.
Kanigel, Robert, The One Best Way. Viking, 1997.
Miller, Char Roone. Taylored Citizenship: State Institutions and Subjectivity . Greenwood Press, 2001.
Pursell, Carroll The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, 1995.
Taylor, Frederick Winslow, Scientific Management, Harper and Row, 1947.
Wrege, Charles and Ronald Greenwood. Frederick W. Taylor: The Father of Scientific Management, Myth and Reality . Business One Irwin, 1991.
American Political Science Review, 9 (August 1915): 488.
Bulletin of the Society to Promote the Science of Management, (November 1915) Vol. I, No. 6, p.8. (5-15).
Bulletin of the Taylor Society, (December 1916) Vol. II, No. 5, p.9; (August 1917) Vol. III, No. 4, p. 3.
Scientific Management Frederick Taylor, 1911; reprint, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1947.