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.