The Management Fundamentalism of Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor (1856–1915)

Frederick Taylor (1856–1915)

Management thinkers played an influential role in shaping the twentieth century, but they remained in the shadow of those who Time Magazine considers the most influential. The influence of visionaries such as Frederick Taylor, Elton Mayo and W. Edwards Deming is, however, immense as their ideas were instrumental in creating the prosperity of the late twentieth century.

Frederick Taylor (1856–1915) was born to a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia and was raised with traditional protestant values, which espouse hard work and discipline. Childhood friends recall him analysing everything, even a game of croquet or rounders. His passion for perfection and sport was rewarded when in 1881 Taylor and his brother in law became the first men’s double US tennis champions. Although passing the entry exam for Harvard University, Taylor did not attend the alma mater of his family. Instead he became an apprentice pattern maker and machinist in 1873. Five years later, he was employed at the Midvale Steel Company as a labourer and worked his way up to chief engineer in six years. While working at Midvale, Taylor obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering through part time study at the Stevens Institute of Technology.1

Taylor’s thinking was emblematic of the rationalist and pragmatic spirit of the late nineteenth century. It was a time when the successes of the exact sciences led to the belief that this type of thinking also applies to the social sciences. The Hobbesian view of society as a machine and the fact that psychology was only an embryonic science, deeply influenced Taylor’s thinking. Society was thrown into disarray because of the rapid transition from small scale traditional social systems to the sprawling cities of the industrial age. This was combined with an increase in individualism, following the call of enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant for people to think for themselves.2 It was also a time of rapid vertical economic growth for the United States, spearheaded by the construction of an extensive railway network, which enabled manufacturers to develop high density distribution networks. Economic activity focused on increasing production because of the intense hunger for goods, which required the improvement of manufacturing techniques in order to keep up with demand. President Roosevelt remarked in this context that: “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency.”

It was these words that Taylor used to open his most influential 1911 monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor developed his management theory when encountering the practice of “systematic soldiering”, which is the intentional limitation of productivity by labourers, at the Midvale Steel Works. Taylor’s protestant ethic emphasising diligent labour as a means to personal salvation and upper class upbringing, prevented him from accepting this ingrained practice.

Taylor’s motives were outwardly humanistic as he aimed to “secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee. Taylor’s focus on increasing productivity was based on the idea that “maximum prosperity can exist only as the result of maximum productivity”.3 Contemporary marketing literature suggests a variety of means to increase prosperity, such as communications and pricing strategies. These sophisticated marketing strategies were, however, not generally practised during Taylor’s time and so his only means to improve prosperity was to increase efficiency.

Taylor observed that factory workers had their trade handed down through word of mouth and he lamented that this “rule of thumb” knowledge, was “not in the possession of the management”4. Taylor’s strategy was therefore principally aimed at transferring power from the worker to management and develop a science to replace traditional knowledge. Although Taylor mentions “an almost equal division of the responsibility between management and the workmen [sic]”,5 his idea of shared responsibility was to move all initiative and control over work methods from labourers to management. His attitude towards labourers is reminiscent of Kant’s Vormünder (guardians),6 as he does not want them to think for themselves. Taylor’s ideal factory is like a termite colony;7 using rigid work patterns which convert employees into mindless workers.

Taylor and his colleagues ran a series of experiments with hauling pig iron. His description of this activity shows disdain, rooted in his sense of class distinctions, for the average worker: “… it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man can be”8, thereby justifying his strict division of labour. Using an early application of ergonomics, Taylor determined that pig iron haulers should be able to move 48 metric tonnes per day (1,144 pigs of iron), instead of the usual 13 tonnes (304 pigs). The workers were offered a salary increase from $1.15 per day to $1.85.9 To the labourers, a sixty percent wage increase would have sounded fantastic, but they had to increase productivity by 376%! Taylor justified this by arguing that part of the productivity gains should be enjoyed by customers, but he also thought that labourers would not be able to handle earning too much money and that they would become “extravagant and dissipated”.10

Taylor had, however, great difficulty implementing his theories and occasionally resorted to lowering wages to “motivate” workers and using a form of Social Darwinism to weed out all those who were not able to achieve the high production standards. Taylor’s experiments were not received favourably; workers literally threw spanners in the works and Taylorism was also subject to a congressional investigation. In spite of this resistance, Taylorism remained popular for several decades.

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo (1880–1949)

Australian born psychologist Elton Mayo (1880–1949) was asked in 1928 to help interpret the data obtained from the Hawthorne experiments. Mayo was a proponent of the psychology of Sigmund Freud and challenged the idea of people as purely rational beings. This in contrast with Taylor, who relied upon mathematical reasoning to improve management practices and analysed people as if they were machines.11

The experiments conducted at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric were initially conducted to investigate relationships between workplace conditions and productivity. One hypothesis productivity maximises at a certain light intensity had to be rejected, as productivity increased regardless of light intensity. The researchers concluded that uncontrolled variables had influenced productivity and eventually concluded that the psychology of the total situation was an important factor.

It could be argued that Taylor foretold the outcomes of Hawthorne. When working at the Simmonds Rolling Machine Company he noted that productivity increased when: “each [ball bearing checking] girl was made to feel that she was the object of special care and interest”. However, Taylor has never conducted any detailed studies to investigate this phenomena.

One of the variables Mayo and his colleagues studied at Hawthorne was the influence of rest periods on productivity. This was, however, not a new idea as Taylor had introduced regular rest periods for the ball bearing checking girls and noted that productivity increased. Taylor’s perspective was, however, not psychological but ergonomic. He was interested in increasing the efficiency of the human machine, without regarding the mind.

Mayo also encountered the practice of soldiering at Hawthorne. Researchers found that a group of workers paid on a piece-rate arrangement had established their own output norm, based on what they thought would be fair. In contrast with Taylor, Mayo did not seek to eradicate the informal organisation, instead he tried to find ways to create an equilibrium between the official and informal organisation.

W. Edwards Deming

Deming teaching in Japan

Deming teaching in Japan

The founder of Total Quality Management, W. Edwards Deming (1900–1993) was imbued with Taylor’s systematic approach, but with a more enlightened understanding of human psychology. To improve the pig-iron loading, Deming would have advised Taylor to motivate workers to provide suggestions to increase efficiency, rather than relying on stopwatch and slide-rule yielding engineers. Taylor’s hierarchical view of the world and his belief in strict division of responsibility impeded him from recognising workers as part of the solution. Taylor’s writings are, however, contradictory, because he does seem to believe that “every encouragement … should be given [to the worker] to suggest improvements”,12 contradicting with his ideas about the division of labour cited above.

There are many points of difference and similarities between Deming and Taylor. They both used a method based on science and placed great value on facts. They also both saw that management and employees have similar interests and both acknowledged the importance of customers. Their points of difference are due to their place on the timeline of management thought. Deming had the advantage of the psychological insights of management researchers such as Mayo, while Taylor was limited by his belief in the exact sciences and the limited availability of psychological knowledge.13

The currently widely implemented Six Sigma business improvement methodology echoes the philosophy of Scientific Management. The Six Sigma method is often summarised with DMAIC: Design, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. These steps are closely aligned to Taylor’s principles of scientific management and Six Sigma is a form of Taylorism, enhanced with customer focus advocated by Deming and an understanding of psychology. Remnants of Taylorism can also be found in call centres. Operators are closely monitored and their work is modelled using mathematical formulae, such as the Erlang-C equation. There is also a strict division of labour as in most call centres, operators are provided with detailed scripts, eliminating human spontaneity which is considered prone to error, from the interaction between customers and operators. The result of this is that call centres suffer from enormous rates of staff dissatisfaction and turnover and that some are calling for a more psychological approach.

Conclusion

The end of the nineteenth century was a pivotal period in the history of Western culture. Fast developments since the industrial revolution had caused social turmoil, but also increased a sense of individualism, flowing on from the ideals of the enlightenment, proclaimed by Kant and others. Taylor, however, clung to the old values of the Ancien Régime and implemented a strict division of labour. Taylor can be called a fundamentalist as he had an unshakable belief that his method was the only right way. Historical forces were, however, much stronger than Taylor. Subsequent management theories proclaimed a more subtle psychological approach to motivate staff, acknowledging the employees are free thinking individuals. Although Taylor recognised that “some special incentive” was required to motivate labourers,14 he failed to seek ways to internally motivate them because he limited himself to the methods of the exact sciences. It is for these reasons that Taylor’s work has only very limited applicability in a contemporary management setting.

  1. Gabor, Andrea (2000) The capitalist philosophers. New York: Three Rovers Press. []
  2. Kant, Immanuel (1784), Was ist Aufklärung? []
  3. Taylor, Frederick W. (19110) The principles of scientific management. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Kant, 1785. []
  7. Pech, Richard J. (2001) ‘Termites, group behaviour, and the loss of innovation: conformity rules!’ Journal of Managerial Psychology 16(7): 559–574. []
  8. Taylor, 1911. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Wren, David A. (2005) The history of management thought. 5th ed. Wiley. []
  12. Taylor, 1911. []
  13. Knouse, Stephen B., Carson, Paula Phillips and Carson, Kerry D. (1993) ‘W. Edward Deming and Frederick Winslow Taylor: A Comparison of two leaders who shaped the world’s view of management’. International Journal of Public Administration 16(10): 1621–1658. []
  14. Taylor, 1911 []

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