Frederick W. Taylor
Man as a Mechanism in the Factory

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Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856, in Boston, of middle class parents.  As a child, he is said to have been enamoured of “rule structures as a means of social control… He was not a boy who took his ball home when he did not win the game.  Instead, he made a practice of devising elaborate rules for the game so that, win or lose, his friends were playing on his terms.”6

Taylor intended to have a career in law, but was told that his eyes were too weak, and that he should not attend university.  Instead he took a job as an apprentice machinist.  From 1878-1889, he was employed at Midvale Steel, where he worked his way up to shop superintendent.  It was during this period that he developed his theory of “Scientific Management.”7

Scientific Management was concerned with efficiency.  There were two aspects to this, Taylor realized.  The workers must have the correct tools, workplan, and environment to support their working as efficiently as possible; and the workers must want to work as efficiently as possible.

Toward the first end, Taylor claimed to have conducted experiments in varying conditions.  For example, if the job was shoveling, a larger shovel blade could move more material in a single stroke, but it would also tire the men more.  Taylor gave the men shovels with smaller and smaller blades each day until the amount shoveled in a day began to fall.  Thus he determined the most efficient size of the tool for each task.8  Through studies such as these, Taylor was able to reduce the number of shovelers at the Bethlehem Steel Works, where he was then employed, from 500 to 140.9 

Following Adam Smith, Taylor encouraged the workers to be more productive through the use of monetary incentives.  At the time, much of manufacturing work was piecework, i.e., the worker would be paid per unit produced.  It was common for employers to actually reduce the rate of pay per piece when the employees began to make too much money.  In response, the workers would “soldier,” purposely lowering their output to keep the piecework rate high.  Naturally, this led to enmity between the workers and the employers.10

As early as the sixteenth century, journeymen had opposed the piece-rate pay system in favor of being hired by the year.  Some small jobs were piecework, notably the home sewing of petticoats and the manufacture of artificial flowers.  I note that these are jobs which even then must have mostly been done by women.  Most other jobs were paid by the day.  As the scale of the factory increased, it became harder to supervise all employees and ensure that they were doing a fair day’s work for a day’s pay.  Hence the introduction of piece-work rates.11

Piece-work rates also came about as a result of abuses of the day-rate system.  It was common for time-keepers to be unable to account for up to 20% of the men who were clocked in.  In one shipyard, one man was charged with making loud hammering noises on the hull of the ship while the remainder of the work crew played cards.12

Taylor changed that, instituting two rates of pay for piecework, a higher one that would go into effect when the worker passed a certain level of productivity.  For example, if a worker could theoretically produce 120 units in a day, he might be paid 4˘ per unit if he made fewer than 100 units per day, but 5˘ per unit if he made 100 or more.  A worker producing 99 units would therefore earn $3.96, but a worker making 100 would earn $5.00.  It has been suggested by some that Taylor never intended the lower rate to be used; that instead a worker who was not producing would be retrained until he could produce at the higher rate.13

There were, and continue to be, many criticisms of Taylor and his ideas.  Taylor believed that employees and management should work as one for the good of the business.  “[His] major thesis was that the maximum good for all society can come only through the cooperation of management and labour in the application of scientific methods to all common endeavours.”14  He was adamantly opposed to the ideas of unionization for the wedge it drove between management and workers.15  And no one denies that Taylorism enhanced efficiency.  A classic example can be found in the story of one of his disciples, Carl Barth, and his work with Franklin Motor Car. 

“When Barth began at Franklin Motor Car, the parts were brought to stationary work areas for assembly.  Franklin manufactured 100 cars per month by this method but it was not profitable because it incurred high costs and had rampant labor turnover (425%).  After Barth finished installing scientific management, Franklin Motor Car was producing 45 cars per day, wages were up 90 percent, labor turnover was less than 50 percent, and the company was profitable.16

In practice, however, while his ideas helped management by making employees more efficient, “workers objected to the way Taylorism and bureaucracy accelerated the pace of work, restricted autonomy, destroyed craft skills and hierarchies, lowered product quality and standards or workmanship, reduced workers from people to machines, undermined status and identity in the community, and caused wages to lag behind productivity and profits.”17

Taylor was insensitive to these complaints, as he was to others. 

“Taylor was equally insensitive to a variety of labour problems.  While he often boasted that his reforms had eliminated hundreds of jobs, he scoffed at critics who argued that scientific management would create unemployment.  He became incensed when questioned about fatigue.  Scientific management, he argued, only called for steady work couple with definite rest periods.”18

In 1957, J.H. Hoagland suggested that experiments to optimize shoveling pig iron had been conducted as early as 1699.  Charles Babbage, of difference engine fame, conducted similar experiments, as did at least eighteen other people during the 18th century.  Taylor did not acknowledge these previous experiments, although he claimed to have hired someone to review works on shoveling in English, French, and German.  Further, in 1974, Wrege and Perroni showed that Taylor’s descriptions of the details of the study were inconsistent.  They called his experiment “more fiction than fact” and said his “law of heavy loading” and his work on rest periods were, largely, a hoax.19  In fact, what Taylor referred to as “rest periods” were, in actuality, the time when the worker was “walking back empty handed after loading a pig on the car.”20

If the bulk of Taylor’s experiments were fictional, what are the chances that his ideas were helpful to management-worker relations?  Taylor believed that monetary incentive alone was enough to create buy-in among the workers.  However, by the middle of the century, the Taylor’s methods were creating more problems than they solved.  The reason was the change in the workforce and the nature of work.

“Probably the most sophisticated critique of Taylorism came from Chris Argyris.  Scientific managers, he thought, accepted bureaucracy as a given.  They assumed that specialization and centralization could achieve efficiency by making workers ‘dependent upon, passive toward, and subordinate to’ the manager and that workers were most productive when they had so little power that they could not choose personal goals.  But these assumptions had created frustrating jobs.  Earlier in the century Taylorized jobs might have been suited to an ill-educated, deferential work force.  But by the 1950s, Taylorism was only useful for managing ‘children,’ ‘morons,’ and the ‘mentally retarded.’ Its autocratic methods no longer suited well-educated workers with democratic values who wanted autonomy and meaningful work.  When applied to the new work force, Taylorism spawned the conflicts it was intended to eliminate.21

“This belief and the practices to which scientific management has led are, according to the psycho-sociological school, the main causes of our ills and troubles in industry and management today.”22

“Classical organisational theorists had a tendency to view the employee as an inert instrument simply performing a task assigned to him.  One reason, of course, for this lack of concern with human beings is the fact that the people who outlined these theories were not generally behavioural scientists, such as psychologists and sociologists, but economists and industrial engineers.  Since these disciplines are not particularly oriented towards the study of human behaviour, it is not surprising that these early theories adopted oversimplified views of man and his role in organisations.

“Classical organisation theory tended to control through disassembly and analysis; to emphasize the detection and elimination of error; to assume that workers are homogenous, unmodifiable, and interchangeable; and seek out the stability of the system.

“If ‘technicism’ refers to a methodologically illegitimate expansion of the technological approach in irrelevant areas of research, scientism in a similar manner implies an overestimation of the possibilities of science as far as value-judgements and their validation are concerned.  Both fallacies are in the classical theory.”23

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6.  Merkle, Judith A.; Management and Ideology: The Legacy of the International Scientific Management Movement; Berkeley: University of California Press; 1980; p. 35.

7.  Pollard, Harold R.; Developments in Management Thought; New York: Crane, Russak & Company, Inc.; 1974; pp. 3-4.

8.  idem; pp. 9-10.

9.  “Scientific Management”; http://www.accel-team.com/scientific/index.html; Accel Team.com; http://www.accel-team.com/; 2000; (5 Dec 00); http://www.accel-team.com/scientific/scientific_02.html.

10.  Pollard, Harold R.; op. cit.; p. 5.

11.  Merkle, Judith A.; p. 22.

12.  idem; p. 23.

13.  Pollard, Harold R.; pp. 11-12.

14.  George, Claude S.; The History of Management Thought; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall; 1972; p. 92.

15.  Wren, Daniel A.; The Evolution of Management Thought; New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.; 1987; p. 127.

16.  idem; p. 132.

17.  Waring, Stephen P.; Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory since 1945; Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press; 1991; p. 12.

18.  Nelson, Daniel; Managers and Workers : Origins of the New Factory System in the United States; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; 1975; p. 59.

19.  Duncan, Jack W.; Great Ideas in Management: Lessons from the Founders and Foundations of Managerial Practice; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1989; p. 55.

20.  Merkle, Judith A.; p. 29.

21.  Waring, Stephen P.; p. 136.

22.  Pollard, Harold R.; p. 15.

23.  Damachi, Ukandi Godwin.; Theories of Management and the Executive in the Developing World; London: Macmillan Press LTD; 1978; p. 7.