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.”