The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency
Eighty-two years after his death in 1915, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the industrial engineer whose invention of “scientific management” promised to revolutionize American industry, is largely forgotten. Celebrated during his lifetime for his dramatic schemes to improve efficiency and increase productivity, Taylor was once linked with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as one of the great American industrial innovators. But today, even among the few who remember his work, it is difficult to find anyone who would endorse it.
Still, if Taylor is no longer intellectually fashionable, Robert Kanigel contends in his biography, his doctrine still pervades much of American culture—so much so, he observes, that “we no longer realize it’s there.”
Taylor bequeathed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines, women, and men. He helped instill in us the fierce, unholy obsession with time, order, productivity, and efficiency that marks our age. Foreign visitors to America often remark on the rushed, breathless quality of our lives. Taylor—whose life, from 1856 to 1915, almost exactly coincided with the Industrial Revolution at its height—helped make us that way.
At first glance, this assessment, however qualified, seems excessive. In fact, only a handful of American firms actually adopted Taylor’s draconian schemes in their entirety (according to one optimistic estimate in 1915, about 1 percent of all industrial workers labored under the full-fledged Taylor system). Most managers found Taylor’s proposals for intensive productivity studies and minutely detailed work instructions far too complicated to implement. Moreover, workers’ fierce objections to Taylorism as a degrading intrusion on their work lives increased managers’ wariness about introducing Taylor’s methods to their factories and offices. Only by the 1920s, when Taylor’s followers began to modify his theories by paying closer attention to workers’ morale, while also recognizing trade unions (which Taylor regarded as spiteful and wasteful), did both labor and management broadly adopt Taylor’s methods.
Nevertheless Kanigel is correct in observing that the crucial element of Taylor’s system—the aggressive effort by management to gain control over technical knowledge connected with work—still dominates American labor relations. Even in modern firms which rely on “post-industrial” methods of shared decision-making and flexible work arrangements (to increase workers’ satisfaction and, thereby, company profits), Taylor’s basic division of responsibility between expert managers and worker-drones survives.
Taylor’s philosophy, as Taylor developed it in the machine shops of the late nineteenth century, originally consisted of a few basic principles about eliminating wasteful industrial procedures and increasing productivity. Every shop-floor task, Taylor instructed, should be divided into its fundamental parts and redesigned—in accordance with Taylor’s famous studies of how time and motion were used—to maximize efficiency and ease of imitation. Wages should be linked to output, and high productivity rewarded as an incentive. Above all, production should be administered exclusively by “efficiency experts,” a new professional group who would determine the “one best way” to run…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.