About Frederick Taylor and “taylorism”

“What is “Taylorism” ? Why is it called ‘Taylorism’?” asked Emmanuel Jallas in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn. To understand Taylor, I would recommend reading not only his own works, particularly Shop Management, but also Robert Kanigel’s biography of him, The One Best Way.

Frederick Taylor was first an engineer and co-inventor of the Taylor-White High Speed Steel machining process. It is not what he is best known for today, but that he did this kind of work is revealing about the kind of man he was. While self-taught, he had enough depth as a young man to challenge established beliefs about metal cutting and conduct experiments that proved it could be done twice as fast. This work led to the development of a feed-and-speed calculation slide rule for lathes at Bethlehem Steel.

Another detail that struck me in the discussion of stopwatch time studies in Shop Management was the method he recommended to calculate times for production steps that are too short to be accurately measured individually. He proposes to measure them in groups, for example, from the 1st to the 5th, the 2nd to the 6th,  the 3rd to the 7th, etc. and  solve a system of linear equations to infer times for each step. Then he explained that this worked if and only if the number of steps in each group was relatively prime to the total number of steps. While true, it is beyond the level of arithmetic usually found in industrial engineering texts, particularly of that era.

Frederick Taylor quote

Frederick Taylor quote

Taylor’s technical depth, however, was coupled with such a crude and dismal view of human nature that is could be called “contempt for people.” His explicit goal in Shop Management is to prevent workers from colluding to curtail output, which he calls “soldiering.” See Perpectives on Standard Work for a discussion of the differences between his approach and that of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.

He is best known for his use of stopwatch time studies for this purpose, but the confrontational and adversarial way he did it set the stage for decades of conflict with labor and ultimate defeat. While stopwatch time studies are the skill most associated in the public mind with industrial engineers (IEs), most university IE programs don’t even teach it anymore. Such studies are rarely conducted in manufacturing plants and, when they are, the results are so laden with allowances and fudge factors as to be meaningless.

The most commonly used alternative is predetermined time standards, mostly Maynard’s MTM or MOST, and the most effective way to analyze operations is not to time them directly with a stopwatch but to make video recordings and analyze them off line together with the operators involved. See Using Videos to Improve Operations, Parts 1 to 7. When doing this kind of work today, Taylor’s legacy is one of fear that must be overcome before starting.

A more enduring and positive Taylor legacy is his work on functional foremanship. While I have never seen a manufacturing organization follow his recommendations exactly, he defined a number of support functions for production that closely map the ones you do find today. What Taylor called a “Gang Boss” is now a Production Supervisor or an Area Coordinator; his “Speed Boss,” a process or manufacturing engineer; his “Routing Clerk,” the technical data manager; his “Shop Disciplinarian,” the Human Resource manager, etc. Taylor saw each production worker as having eight such functional foremen, which was obviously impractical and no one implemented. What remains is that, through the existing support departments, we can still see the categories he specified.

Taylor’s name is also often mistakenly associated with the invention of the assembly line. It was done at Ford, shortly before Taylor’s death in 1915, and he had nothing to do with it. His work is about individual operations, not end-to-end flow.

Taylor was also the first consultant. As a corporate executive, he was not successful, and found that he could make a living as an independent, selling advice instead. The profession he thus created has been a haven for corporate misfits ever since.

It is usually opponents of an approach who reduce it to an “-ism.” Taylor and his supporters talked about “Scientific Management,” which is an overstatement; labor unions that fought it called it “taylorism,” which makes it sound like an opinion or a movement and denies it has any objective basis. You don’t ever hear of “newtonism” or “einsteinism,” but evolution deniers talk about “darwinism.” Likewise, today, people who oppose the implementation of Lean or TPS call it “toyotism,” which, to them, has the added advantage of sounding ominously like “taylorism.”



14 comments on “About Frederick Taylor and “taylorism”

  1. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    A very interesting overview of Taylor’s work Michel, thank you.

    You comment that stopwatch studies are rarely conducted nowadays and “when they are, the results are so laden with allowances and fudge factors as to be meaningless”.

    I know of one large UK company that bases its whole production planning process on stopwatch times (using methods that any competent statistician would pick enormous holes in); and the times are indeed laden with allowances and fudge factors (called “shrinkage”). And yet this company’s whole management and planning process is effectively based on these timings. Small wonder that excuses and obfuscation abound!

  2. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    All very good points but I can remember being time studied many times at my big company back in the 70’s.

    Back then there were no computers on the lines and no real automation. It was dreadfully hot-cold and noisy. I remember having to wear my winter coat for the first few hours of work because it was so cold…On the line required carrying heavy parts and tools and learning to try to stay in your work zone.

    If you fell behind for any reason your were now in others work zones and conflict would arise. During time study they wanted completed work in work zones so the trick was to add walking distance to get a reduced work load.

    The timestudy man would be weeks measuring everything even when you thought he was watching some one else. I remember the total time for wok being 432 min. /day but I often got 460 or 475 because they thought that I could do it. Too many games were being played so I think this is one reason why they abandonded it for the most part and went to balanced work load and job standardizing formats.

  3. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    It’s all very interesting. My view is that Toyota took the principle of scientific management and from this came Kaizen in the form of scientific experiments? Small experiments?

    As far as stopwatch analysis. I have taught all of my Line Managers to make improvements through stop watching 20 cycles of the process. Ita good way of analysing and producing graphical images of the variation in the process.

  4. Stopwatch times studies seem to touch a nerve. No one is commenting on any other aect of Taylor’s work.

    And I consider stopwatch time studies to be obsolete. You collect much deeper information through video recordings. Gilbreth showed it with his films in the 1910s but, until recently, the equipment was too expensive. Now you can record usable videos with a smartphone

  5. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practices discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Michel explained many facts about Taylor’s work. I have also found it sometimes difficult to relate many of the positive aspects of his work to what is often portrayed as a purely “evil” philosophy. My readings of Taylor and several of his critics, do show his contempt of workers. In this respect however, he was very much a product of his era, whereby the class distinctions were vast, and this class divide somehow “legitimised” that workers are lazy and will do everything to do the absolute minimum work. I don’t in anyway condone this, but simply reflect it.
    But, in spite of our enlightened view of work and workers through TPS and Lean, there still exists remnants of the class divide of Taylor’s era and, the “contempt”. TPS acknowledges this in the “waste of human”, and we see it time and time again, in the many posts that describe anything from “poor practices”, “lack of leadership”, “ridiculous metrics”, “lack of trust”, etc.

    What I think we can take out of Taylor’s contributions, good and bad, is that it reflects even today, “who we are and what we do”. As leaders and consultants, we are not perfect. We may have found what we believe to be an ideal path, a perfect mindset, but, we need at all times to be mindful that we remain true to our Human values.

    As Michel said, it goes far beyond “the stopwatch”….

    • @Patrick — I think attitudes towards workers are shaped by personalities rather than eras. You still meet managers today who think like Taylor. Taylor and Frank Gilbreth are only one generation apart, and both knew shop floors well through personal experience. Yet Gilbreth did not share Taylor’s dim view of workers, and I think the TPS approach to operator job design owes more to Gilbreth than Taylor.

      I recently saw a documentary about the parallel lives of French auto pioneers Louis Renault and André Citroën. Both met Henry Ford and brought mass production to Europe. Both were inventors and made lasting contributions to automotive technology. Both created brands that still exist. Renault was brutal to and contemptuous of his workers; Citroën, respectful and caring.

      • Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

        I fully agree: it is part of the universal personality traits of leaders and managers. I was trying to imply much the same in my post, except that I was making the point that because of today’s more enlightened management environment, it may be less obvious or blatant. But I’m sure there will be examples that are just as bad…

        And as I was reviewing all these posts, I’m reminded of an exchange about 15 years ago with a manager, just a few years from retirement, who had worked his way up from an MTM engineer. He still carried his original stopwatch around with him, and used it daily. He was named as my Mentor, and gave me the benefit of his wisdom:
        “You see Patrick, when I first started, my boss used to tell me that the reason there are industrial engineers, supervisors and managers is because of the inherent laziness and ill discipline of workers. “If you turn your back, they’ll be twiddling their thumbs, sabotaging product and telling each other how to get the boss”, he used to tell me “that’s why we need to be asserting our authority: a yell and a shout helps, even more if it helps to wake them up!”. Of course Patrick, he was of the old school: he almost wished he was a slave master and had a whip. But I have learned the power of the stopwatch: it never lies. Within a couple of clicks, I can tell a lazy, slow or clumsy associate exactly where he’s going wrong, and how he can lift his game. They all appreciate a tough and fair boss: they know they’re always trying to do the least possible, so they respect a person who confronts them with their weaknesses using a stopwatch. They very quickly learn how much their attitude is costing the company in time. Even in this new Lean nonsense you young guys dream about, there is still a place for takt times. All you need to do is use it to make people face the facts of life, instead of deluding yourselves that they’re all here to contribute. They’re not, and that’s why we are the managers”.

        When I look back at this, I’m reminded that this man never intended to do anything wrong, yet was hopelessly misguided. And I guess he’ll never know…

  6. Taylor may have observed what he called “soldiering,” but he failed to consider blowback. If management’s move is to apply “scientific management” to prevent soldiering, what is labor’s response going to be?

    Workers’ perception is that they are doing tedious work for low pay under uncomfortable or even dangerous conditions, and now management is pressuring them to work harder. So they organize to thwart management. In other words, the attempt to eliminate soldiering results in reinforcing it! In addition, the whole effort poisons labor-management relations in a way that is difficult to overcome later.

    Historically, in the US and Europe, this is the way it played out and the reason it failed.

  7. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    As Michel points out, one of the new tools of process improvement is video both for time and motion studies but also for SMED, etc.

    Please forgive a fun “video” example that has nothing to do with this discussion topic. I know a very Lean/TPS company that installed permanent video cameras in all of its finished goods warehouses/shipping area throughout the world. The cameras film in very slow motion. The weekly stand up meeting just watches the video (a 3 minute summary). Any pallet that did not move for over 12 hours shows up. Everything that moved fast is invisible. The problems are immediatetly visually apparent. No computer needed. This is obviously not envisageable in all countries due to potential labor disputes.

    To come back to stopwatches and/or videos. If I want to use them I ask the direct labour to time/film itself or the trade union representative. You do need data.

    • Juran clearly preferred to attribute his invention to somebody else, probably to make it easier to himself to promote it. Taylor didn’t name his approach after himself either, and called it “Scientific Management,” which I don’t like because I don’t think it really is scientific. “Taylorism” doesn’t work for me either, because, as discussed above, it is judgmental. How about the “Taylor approach,” as a neutral and descriptive term?

      I think Modern Times was clearly targeted at Ford, not Taylor. The “working lunch” it shows is a monstrosity, but, today, it afflicts professionals, not line workers.

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