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.”



Deming’s Point 9 of 14 – Break down barriers between departments

(Featured image from the  Bureaucracy game, by Douglas Adams)

Deming’s complete statement of Point 9 is as follows:

“Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems in production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.”

Within a large organization, it is common for departments to work at cross purposes. Each department is a functional silo, working towards goals that may be inconsistent with the interests of the whole. Deming gives many examples of disasters that occur as a consequence, and exhorts his readers to break down the barriers to keep them from happening. As with his other points, he makes no recommendation on how to accomplish this.

Let us examine several approaches that have been tried, and the issues that organizations encountered when they did:

Eliminating silos in the organization

This is not a problem for small companies. As long as the entire management team fits within a small conference room, there are few opportunities to erect barriers. In a large company where it is a problem, the most obvious solution is to organize by what is variously called business teams, business processes, value streams, or focused factories.

You dissolve the functional departments and organize multifunction teams that bring all the required talent to bear on the core activities. In a manufacturing company, for example, all the resources needed to make a family of products from start to finish — including engineers, maintenance and quality technicians, schedulers, etc. — report to one “value stream manager,” and there cannot be barriers between silos because there are no silos.

It’s like the Mission Impossible TV series, with the disguise specialist and the explosives expert working together towards a common goal, as opposed to being in separate facilities and exchanging service requests in triplicate. This is a popular picture in the US and the approach is often used in a variety of contexts, such as emergency response, as in Apollo 13, or product development, for Data General’s MV-8000 computer in 1980 in Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, or the 1996 Taurus at Ford in Mary Walton’s Car.

The movie Apollo 13 shows a seemingly too-good-to-be-true team that is thrown together to find a way to fit the square connector of the command module air scrubber to the round hole used on the lunar module, using nothing but the odds and ends available to the astronauts on the crippled spacecraft. But the story is true, and we have a picture of the actual device the astronauts built.

This was the philosophy of Business Process Reengineering (BPR). Each business was to be broken down into processes turning some input into an externally visible output. Manufacturing, in BPR, did not qualify as a process. Instead, it was subsumed into the order-fulfillment process.

Making functional departments work

But it is not a panacea. The development of the 1996 Taurus took 30 months, and it was a major improvement over previous products at Ford, but still not down to the 24 months used at Toyota for the Rav4, and Toyota uses a traditional structure with functional departments communicating through memos.

In addition, according to Mary Walton, Ford’s integrated, collocated team made design decisions that made manufacturing more difficult. She explains in particular that the sculptured shape of the side panels made them more difficult to stamp, and this happened even though manufacturing was represented in the team. As a work of art, the 1996 Taurus was stunning. As a commercial product, however, it was lackluster, losing the previous versions’ bestseller status in the US market to the more “boring” Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in 1997.

The reality is that organization structure does not determine outcomes. The caliber of the individuals, their motivations for the roles they are playing, and their interaction protocols are at least as important. In their July, 1998 Harvard Business Review article , D.K.Sobek, J. Liker, and A.C. Ward listed the following practices as key to Toyota’s performance in product development:

  1. Written communication with single-sheet A3 reports in standard formats.
  2. Engineering supervision by practicing, hands-on engineers.
  3. A chief engineer (shusa, or 主査) for each project who is an experienced designer with a proven ability to integrate different technologies into a product. The shusa has a team of 5 to 15 members coordinating the work of hundreds who remain in functional departments.
  4. Engineers who develop their skills through on-the-job training, mentoring, and rotation within their functional department, with senior managers rotating between departments.
  5. High-level project plans with a small number of milestones, giving each department flexibility on detailed tasks.
  6. Checklists of design standards embodying the lessons learned in previous projects.

Obstacles to organization by process or value stream

The Toyota example is about product development. But what about other activities like operations? When you attempt to organize everything by business process, or by value stream, in most cases you encounter some functional departments that you technically cannot or should not break up.

Most machine shops have a central heat treatment facility. Induction hardening can, for some work, distribute heat treatment among different production lines and break down the “heat treat silo,” but a given shop may make products to which it is not applicable, its customers may not approve the process, or it may not have the skills or resources to implement it. Electroplating and painting commonly are similar challenges. As a result, the plant ends up with a few common services organized as functional departments along with lines that take a family of products through a sequence of operations.

Among support functions, the picture is also mixed. Production scheduling at the detailed level, for example, works better when the schedulers work directly for the manager of a production line than in a central department, because local scheduling is a simpler problem and the relevant specifics of machine behaviors are more accessible. On the other hand, breaking down a maintenance department and making the technicians report to production managers may not enhance their responsiveness when, for example, the group assigned to a line is short of the critical mass needed to have at least one technician standing by for the next emergency.

Other departments remain organized centrally because of the information they have access to, like Human Resources, Accounting, or Technical Data Management; others, because of external entities they deal with, like Shipping and Receiving.

Skills maintenance, continuing education and career planning

When breaking down a functional department and reassigning its members to teams organized around processes, we also need to consider how it affects the people to whom we do it. Professionals like medical doctors or lawyers work for clients who have little or no knowledge of their specialties, but it is then up to them to decide how much of their revenue to spend or maintaining their skills. They choose which magazines tp subscribe to and which conferences to attend, without asking anybody’s permission.

An engineer reporting to a production manager also works for one “client” who does not have the same expertise, but as an employee. If this engineer wants to attend a conference, the first step is to get approval for the time and money it will consume, from a manager with no knowledge of whether it is a good idea.

In the long term, what career does this engineer have to look forward to? The manager needs the engineer’s skills here and now but is ill equipped to provide guidance, compared to an engineering manager whose background and experience are in the same field.

For this reason, some companies have adopted matrix organizations, in which specialists report “solid-line” to a process owner who needs their skills in operations or on projects, and “dotted-line” to a functional manager for skills maintenance and career development. In a diagram, as follows, this structure looks simple and attractive:In reality, of course, it is a more complex form of organization than a simple hierarchy, and conducive to all sorts of tensions regarding authority and responsibility.

Project transitions

Project work — like product development, new product introduction, or new plant setup — differs from operations in that it ends when a goal is reached, which may be a working prototype, a target takt time in production for the new product, or for the new plant. At that point, the teams are disbanded and their members move on.

This is a particularly sensitive transition to manage when you collocate a multifunction project team in one big room, because its members bond both with the project and with each other, and receive the ending like a psychological blow on the scale of the loss of a family member. This is another reason why they need to retain a connection with their functional peers.


Breaking down barriers between departments for the greater good of the organization as a whole is a worthy goal, that high-level managers have been pursuing since, at least, the Roman empire. There is no simple recipe. The approaches followed by successful organizations have been subtle, nuanced, and fitted to their purposes.