Shortly before he died in a Philadelphia hospital on March 21, 1915, Frederick Winslow Taylor was heard winding his watch. This final action of the father of scientific management was as appropriate as any last words would have been: The clock was at the center of his struggle to make most of life scientific.
Although one of the goals of Kanigel’s account is to resuscitate Taylor’s moribund reputation, he is well aware that his subject’s overzealous advocacy of efficiency is problematic. In trying to make efficiency an axial value for the world, Taylor alienated numerous workers, for whom he was a soulless slave driver, and even their bosses, who saw him as “an eccentric and a radical” who raised wages while ruling the factory with a stopwatch. To himself, he was a misunderstood crusader who, battling under the banner of science, was bringing peace to the perennial conflict between bosses and laborers. His life, therefore, took place in that “murky territory . . . between the dark country to which [his] critics consign him and the sunny utopia of his own vision.”
Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia, in 1856. The Taylors reared their three children with liberal Quaker values—rationalism, honesty, and tolerance. The private school Taylor attended in Germantown served to reinforce these progressive values. The Taylors’ wealth and social position provided Taylor with important opportunities throughout his life: European travel, good schooling, and easy access to the job market. Despite an undiagnosed astigmatism, he passed Harvard’s entrance examination, but he decided on an industrial apprenticeship at the Enterprise Hydraulic Works in Philadelphia.
Taylor was apprenticed as a machinist and became part of a milieu that would possess him for the rest of his life. He became familiar with lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. He found much of this work monotonous and uninteresting, but he believed that doing disagreeable things built character. Nevertheless, like his fellow machinists, he “soldiered,” that is, he worked harder when the boss was watching him and slacked off when the boss moved on. To conserve their energy, workmen tried to hide from their bosses what they were actually capable of doing.
At Midvale Steel Company, his next job, Taylor, only twenty- three, was quickly promoted from machinist to machine-shop foreman, overseeing workers who were making the metal tires used on wagon wheels and locomotive wheels. These workers were paid on piece rate; that is, the more wheels they made, the more money they earned, but management could reduce the rate of pay per piece if production increased too much. The workers responded to rate reductions by soldiering, but, as foreman, Taylor was determined to end this practice.
The crux of the matter, as Taylor saw it, was what constituted a day’s work. He thought science could provide an answer to this question. He was given permission to conduct metal-cutting experiments to see how fast steel tires could be safely made. He acquired knowledge about how to improve the productivity of the plant’s machines and employ less skilled workmen than before. In effect, he was transforming traditional craft knowledge into scientific data, thereby displacing technical expertise from workers to managers.
While conducting these experiments, Taylor managed to obtain a mechanical engineering degree from the Stevens Institute of Technology. During this period, he also won a U.S. Open Tennis Championship with a spoonlike racquet he invented. He participated in theatricals, which he analyzed and tried to reduce to a science. Through them, he formed a close relationship with Louise Marie Spooner, whom he married in 1884. She quickly learned that Taylor was not above applying the techniques of scientific management to the details of their domestic life. She also discovered that his Midvale work took precedence over their marriage.
Taylor was now deeply interested in the time it took for workmen to complete specific tasks. Using a stopwatch to time various jobs, he found that a man could do much more work than previously assumed, but he was unable to obtain a consistent numerical result. He therefore broke operations down into individual movements and established individual times for these. He created detailed instruction cards that explained how tools were to be used, including specific motions and times. He wanted workers to do nothing on their own initiative. To overcome the resistance of his workers to his new system, Taylor paid them handsomely to do the work his way, by his standards, and at the speeds he mandated.
Taylor and his wife lost a large sum of money in the Panic of 1893, and this debacle initiated a period of wanderings for Taylor. He set himself up as a managerial consultant. His base was Germantown, from which he travelled around the country to organize or reform various firms. These experiences convinced him that his talent lay not in making locomotive tires, paper pulp, or ball bearings, but in his methods.
In 1898, a company that would soon be known as Bethlehem Steel hired Taylor to increase its productivity. As in his previous jobs, he instituted new machines and personnel. Although he developed several important innovations, Taylor became most famous at Bethlehem Steel for his study of the loading of pig iron, which focused on a workman named Henry Noll. Taylor had been looking for a strong man of the “mentally sluggish type,” and this Dutchman suited his purposes. Using detailed instructions, a stopwatch, and a promised wage hike from $1.15 to $1.70 a day, Taylor trained Noll to carry 92-pound pigs of iron up a ramp onto a freight car over a thousand times a day. His results showed that the total workload could be increased from 13 to 47.5 long tons a day. In sum, Taylor proved that he could more than triple a...
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