Fairness to Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor is an easy target. In a tweet last November Michael Ballé, as “@Thegembacoach” attributed to “taylorism” practices that I have never seen advocated in Taylor’s writings. Enough of Taylor’s own work is questionable that we don’t need to pile on other people’s bad ideas. Along with the chaff , however, there is wheat, and we have more to learn from the enduring part of Taylor’s legacy than from what has been discredited.

Following are the practices Michael Ballé attributed to “taylorism”:

  1. A consultant analyzes and redefines the work process.
  2. The manager implements “performance management” to pressure teams.
  3. A computer system drives every motion and measures individual productivity.
  4. The manager cuts resources without solving problems.
  5. Change is imposed without consultation and without preliminary trials.
  6. Team morale does not matter.

Having studied Taylor’s works, I can’t find any of these recommendations in them. Let’s go through the list again:

  1. Until Taylor’s day, the consulting profession didn’t exist; he invented it.  But I don’t recall him recommending that time studies and process analysis be done by outsiders to the company hired just for this purpose.
  2. I don’t recall any mention of teams in Taylor’s work. His focus is on individual workers and the roles of managers.
  3. Computers weren’t invented for more than three decades after Taylor died, and I don’t believe he expressed any opinion about their proper use.
  4. It sounds like cutting every department’s budget by 5% and letting them figure out how to adjust. It certainly is a common practice, but I don’t recall Taylor recommending it.
  5. Taylor did have a top-down, management-knows-best philosophy and a low opinion of workers, but he was an engineer. He believed in and practiced experimentation.
  6. Again “team” is not a word I recall seeing in Taylor’s works. He refers to the group of workers under a “foreman” as a “gang.” It’s true that he does not express concern for gang morale, but he does claim that the  the workers support his approach because they earn more as a result of producing more. There is not much corroboration of this claim.

Many of Taylor’s ideas were flawed, too limited in scope, and ultimately ineffective. His perception of human nature was simplistic. He set out to eliminate collusion among workers to curtail output by basing production rates on time studies, but ended up reinforcing these behaviors instead, as workers organized to game the time studies. He thought people could be motivated solely by financial incentives, and he didn’t see the assembly line coming.

Taylor is best known for his failures, and used as a convenient villain. And his accomplishments are forgotten, in particular:

  • He was the inventor of high-speed machining, having established through experimentation that some cutting tools actually worked better at twice the then prevailing cutting speed. This was pure engineering work, resulting in a patent.
  • His theory of “functional foremanship,” while never implemented as he recommended, contained a list of manufacturing support functions that, under new names, exist to this day in every factory. His “routing clerk,” for example, is now in charge of technical data management; his “shop disciplinarian” is now Human Resources, etc.
  • The consulting profession he invented is thriving, providing a structure for many individuals to work in ways they couldn’t in a corporation.


9 comments on “Fairness to Frederick Taylor

  1. Hi Michel – You are correct in your analysis.

    I too have tried to correct Michael on this. But, upon reflection, I think that what he was trying to do was explain Taylor’s ideas in the context of current business, thereby illustrating how they are put into practice (incorrectly) by today’s managers.

    Managers who do not know Lean and do not know Taylor’s work well have thus not evolved their practice over time as one would hope. As a result, Taylor’s work continues to be influential in the wrong ways even to this day – i.e. modern management practice has not kept pace with the progressive management practice (Lean). That is why, Michael says, we need to advance Lean to a wider audience – a point which we can all agree.

    Perhaps my interpretation is wrong and Michael will clarify it here.

    Anyway, I think you would agree that we should all view Taylor’s work in the context of the times and as an important FIRST step in the establishment and practice of progressive management. Both Taylor and Gilbreth gave the people that followed them (Woollard, Toyoda, Ohno) much to build upon.

  2. I don’t quite get how attributing other people’s bad ideas to Taylor explains Taylor’s ideas in any context. It works better if you start from Taylor’s actual ideas.

    For some reason, the Gilbreths get less attention than Taylor, even though their thinking was much closer to ours, as evidenced in their movies. They were analyzing operations for the purpose of improving them, not to prevent oprators from curtailing output.

  3. I agree with Michel, Taylorism has been used as the dumping ground for many ideas that have nothing to do with him. His work in the late 19th century laid the foundation upon which others have built. He was also a product of his time in terms of the management and worker divisions and attitudes. Attitudes we now find unacceptable; but this is 120 years later. We should not let this detract from excellence of most of his original basic thinking. I still think he deserves the title, ‘Father of scientific management’.—

    As a young work-study engineer and rate-fixer in the 1960’s, my main sources of information was not Taylor’s original material, but all my trainers and the authors of my study material referred to Taylor and the Galbraiths as the original source for ‘Scientific Thinking’ and ‘Time and Motion Study’. I cannot have been alone in finding this material inspiring. When I move into the metal cutting industry, I used Taylor’s tool life equation and its expanded form, as an essential tool for analysing tooling performance and metal cutting economics.—

    A point often missed about Taylor was his visionary abilities. This is best explained in his own words. In 1912 he was called before a Senate committee to explain his system for improving productivity. Some years ago the BBC broadcast a radio programme about Taylor and the effect of his teachings called, ‘The time and motion man’. Part of it included dialogue based upon transcripts from this investigation. I recorded it at the time and the comments below I documented yesterday.—

    Senator. “What is the economic necessity for increasing production?”
    Taylor. “The world suffers now, as it always has from underproduction. Underproduction is responsible for low wages, and the reason the poor have fewer things in terms of the basics and luxuries to live on. Have poorer food to eat, pay higher rents and can afford fewer clothes. The only way to bring these things into the world is to increase output. Scientific management is about increasing the output of the man without increasing his effort. I firmly believe in the next 100 years the wealth of the world will grow to such an extent that the workman of the day will live almost as well as the high class businessman lives now; both as the necessities and luxuries of life”. —

    I will leave the final word to someone we all admire;

    “In 1881, an American, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), first applied knowledge to the study of work, the analysis of work, and the engineering of work. Darwin, Marx, Freud form the trinity often cited as the’ makers of the modern world’. Marx would be taken out and replaced by Taylor if there were any justice in the world. But that Taylor is not given his due is a minor matter. It is a serious matter that far too few people realise that the application of knowledge to work created developed economies by setting off the productivity explosion of the last hundred years.”
    Peter Drucker

    Post Capitalist Society. 1993

    On my first few visit to Japan to study the Toyota Production System, I quickly appreciated that they had developed their own form of ‘Scientific Management Thinking’. The main difference to the Taylor model was that they had engaged all their people positively in the process.

    • Sid: Thanks for sharing your experience. As for Drucker, I think of him as the pied piper of American management, so articulate and eloquent that he can get bad ideas universally accepted. Management by Objectives was one of them; management as a generic profession, another. We owe him the notion that the same person can excel equally at selling sugared water and building computers.

      I don’t know who cites Darwin, Marx and Freud as “makers of the modern world.” It seems arbitrary to anoint any such a “trinity” and to put these particular people in it, even if you replace Marx with Taylor. If I were to pin a maker-of-the-modern-world medal on anyone, I probably would keep Darwin but then I would include Maxwell, Turing, Crick & Watson. But wait, maybe I should include somebody not British, besides Watson.

      We should also not forget that the first stopwatch time study was not conducted by Taylor but by Newton at the London Mint in 1696, at least according to Newton biographer Michael White.

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