Taylor and "Scientific Management"

views updated

Taylor and "Scientific Management"

United States 1878-1911


As industrialism expanded in the United States following the Civil War, the essence of the labor movement was the struggle for control of the workplace between workers, who were holding fast to their craft skills, and management. One of the most famous figures to participate in this struggle was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who rose from his position as an apprentice sweeping out a foundry in Philadelphia to become the proponent of "scientific management," which combines ruthless industrial efficiency with social gospel, and instigated the genesis of the "science" of management itself.

Although Taylor is most popularly associated with "Taylorism," the practice of time-and-motion studies, this vulgar depiction fails to do justice to the enormous scope of his work, of which the efficiency studies were a small part. His intent was to revolutionize—his term!—the way in which work was organized with a goal of prosperity and industrial harmony.


  • 1894: War breaks out between Japan and China. It will end with China's defeat the next year, marking yet another milestone in China's decline and Japan's rise.
  • 1895: German engineer Rudolf Diesel invents an engine capable of operating on a type of petroleum less highly refined, and therefore less costly, than gasoline.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.
  • 1897: Establishment of the Zionist movement under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish American War. As a result, Cuba gains its independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1901: Guglielmo Marconi makes the first successful transmission and reception of a radio signal.
  • 1903: Anti-Jewish pogroms break out in Russia.
  • 1905: Albert Einstein presents his special theory of relativity.
  • 1906: An earthquake, the worst ever to hit a U.S. city, strikes San Francisco on 18 April. It kills some 2,500 people, leaves another 250,000 homeless, and destroys more than $400 million worth of property.

Event and Its Context

Born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia, Frederick Winslow Taylor took a position as a foundry apprentice in 1873, in the midst of the Panic of 1873. The cutting of metal, which he first witnessed in this foundry, became one of his life's obsessions. Taylor immediately noticed two elements of the work process that disturbed him for the remainder of his life and which he committed himself to eliminating.

The first was soldiering, a derogatory term for Taylor, by which workers carefully controlled their output. In his congressional testimony in 1912, Taylor maintained that higher productivity led to higher employment, but the workers of the late nineteenth century believed the reverse: they were careful not to finish work too quickly to avoid both running out of work and working too hard. He called this control by an individual natural soldiering and termed shop-wide organization systematic soldiering. Taylor devoted his life to eliminating these organizing principles from business practice.

Taylor also took on the rule-of-thumb, a haphazard practice of organizing the work that gave individual workers enormous control. Production processes had never been subjected to what Taylor called "scientific" scrutiny; work simply continued as it always had, depending upon the inclinations of individual workers. Workers determined machine speeds and the methods—or "feed"—of cutting metal. Foremen were responsible for many functions, including assigning work, disciplining workers, and resolving production delays, but had virtually no direct control over the individual worker.

Taylor saw enormous wastes in the process. Machinists did all of the work on a particular piece, from the unskilled work of setting up the piece to the semiskilled work of grinding their own tools to the skilled work of actually making a cut. They searched for parts in what Taylor called "a leisurely fashion" and often had to wait for other machines to finish. In short, there was no system, and the principles of science, utilizing thoroughly documented experiments, was wholly lacking.

Taylor most resented and directed of all of his work toward the control that workers exerted over the process and ultimately over productivity. In Scientific Management, a three-part volume summing up his work, he stated "As was usual then [1879] and in fact is still usual [1911] in most of the shops in this country, the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses. The workmen together had carefully planned just how fast each job should be done, and they had set a pace for each machine throughout the shop, which was limited to about one-third of a good day's work."

In 1878, Taylor accepted a position at Midvale Steel. He told the workers that "he was now on the side of management, and that he proposed to do whatever he could to get a fair day's work out of the lathers." In the autumn of 1880, his determination to increase productivity prompted him to conduct a series of systematic experiments in metal cutting. He found almost immediately that cooling the cutting tools with a water spray could increase cutting speed by 40 percent.

By February 1884, Taylor had complete authority over the machine shop and set about transforming its organization. He began to time workers with a stopwatch as they worked. He created "instruction cards," which noted each motion and each decision that workers had passed along informally to eash other. Taylor recorded these work process decisions for the foreman and for use in instructing new workers. Taylor's "scientific" calculations guided performance and time spent on each task. The result was increased productivity and, most importantly, a transfer of control of the work process to management.

Taylor also worked to simplify each observed production step. Although his immediate goal was increasing productivity, in this way, he contributed to the deskilling of the work place.

Taylor noted the shift in responsibility to the foreman and worked to streamline the job by assigning its traditional duties into five categories: instruction-card clerk, time clerk, inspector, traditional gang-boss, and shop disciplinarian.

For the next decade at Midvale, Taylor experimented and recorded every aspect of the work process and sought to eliminate breakdowns and inefficiencies. In a futile gesture intended to engage worker support, he created a set of differential rates, which promised to pay workers higher rates for increased productivity, an improvement over the simple piece-rate structure.

The goal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was to gather technical information. In 1886, Henry Robinson Towne, of Yale and Towne lock maker, presented a paper called The Engineer as Economist, which has been called "the founding document of the new science of management" because it talked to engineers about the practices of shop management. Taylor adopted and consistently adhered to the tenets set forth in Robinson's paper by using technical improvements to change production organization, deskill certain work tasks, and strengthen management control.

One of Taylor's evaluations involved the system of belts that drove the machines. He measured the life of each belt and its dimensions to determine which ones lasted longest at the highest speeds. He compiled his experimental results in his first public pronouncement, Notes on Belting, which he read in December 1893 at the annual meeting of ASME. In June 1895 Taylor presented a second paper for ASME, called A Piece-Rate System: A Step Toward Partial Solution of the Labor Problem.

Taylor left Midvale in 1889 and spent years trying to convince other manufactures to adopt scientific management, which, as he conceived it, was a total system of administering the work process and not just isolated pieces such as time-study. Close to the tumult of the Homestead and Pullman strikes, Taylor proposed using "science" to create industrial harmony. He stated "the ordinary piece-rate system involves a permanent antagonism between employers and men" and proposed a "scientific" pay system that "renders labor unions and strikes unnecessary." When this paper was reprinted in Engineering Magazine, Taylor became—after 22 years of experimentation—an overnight sensation.

In spring of 1898, Bethlehem Steel hired Taylor to manage Machine Shop No. 2, the largest in the world, which produced enormous cannons for the Spanish-American War. Calling Bethlehem Steel "a case study in inefficiency," he began to transform the work place in every area, installing "scientific management," or "Taylorism," as it was then known, over the objections of both workers and managers.

Working with metallurgist Maunsell White, Taylor began experiments on the heat-treating of tool steel, and eventually determined that heating the tool steel to a temperature of 2,200 degrees provided maximum efficiency and allowed cuts that were 100 percent faster and 40 percent deeper; with this single improvement, a cannon tube that had previously required 72 hours to cut could be finished in 22 hours. Taylor and White applied for a patent and showcased their efforts at the Centennial Exhibition in Paris in 1900. This exposure made Taylor's "scientific" approach world famous and led to the publication The Art of Cutting Metal, which first appeared at the ASME meeting in November 1906.

Carl Barth signed on at Bethlehem to develop mathematical formulas for calculating job rates and became another of Taylor's protégés. Barth's contributions including devising a special slide rule that allowed management to predict accurately the amount of time needed for each process and eliminate the rule-of-thumb that had previously dominated production speeds.

The final achievement at Bethlehem involved the famous experiments on shoveling, with a laborer named Henry Noll, later disguised by Taylor as "a man named Schmidt." Taylor set out to evaluate the process of loading pig iron on freight cars, which led to later experiments on shovel sizes and design. This effort illustrated that Taylorism could apply to even the most unskilled job.

In June 1903 Taylor presented a comprehensive summary of "Taylorism" called Shop Management as his final important paper presented at an annual ASME meeting. Although the presentation focused on technical exhibits and diagrams, Taylor also set forth his social theory that some workers would appreciate the social and economic benefits of "scientific management," whereas others, "either stupid or stubborn, can never be made to see that the new system is as good as the old; and these, too, must drop out."

As unionism grew after the turn of the century, however, so did organized opposition to Taylorism. The proposed introduction of "scientific management" at the Watertown, Massachusetts, arsenal in 1911 provoked both a walkout of the men and a congressional hearing, whose edited transcript provides the fullest expression of Taylor's views. A time study, initiated in February 1911, caused individual opposition, shop-wide work stoppages, petitions, discharges, extensive meetings and national publicity—all over the topic of Taylorism.

As a result, the House of Representatives authorized a "Special Committee to Investigate the Taylor and Other Systems of Shop Management," at which Taylor testified on 25 January 1912. Living as a consultant of sorts, Taylor had not been confronted directly with the moral implications of scientific management. Over the years he had forced his system through unorganized workplaces. The House committee included Congressman William B. Wilson, a former coal miner from Pennsylvania, who would be appointed as the first secretary of labor in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson. William Wilson not only challenged Taylor for three days on his system, but also called shop workers to testify about the effects of "scientific management."

The congressional hearing was a pointed attack on "scientific management" and on Taylor personally. Taylor, however, saw it as an opportunity to proclaim the essence of his theory in its broadest and most socially ambitious form, as a progressive, even revolutionary, principle and to denounce managers or critics who took only pieces of his grand vision. He stated that "scientific management is not any efficiency device, not a device for securing efficiency . . . ." and declared that it constituted a "complete mental revolution" on the part of workers and management alike, from business owners to shop foremen, toward both workers and work processes.

Taylor spent the last years of his life as a management consultant, working on various projects—developing the perfect grass for putting greens, for example—and died in Philadelphia on 21 March 1915 of pneumonia. He is buried in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery across the Schuylkill River from the Midvale Steel works.


Taylor believed that close examination of and the application of "science" to the work process would allow factories literally to hum with harmony and to produce greater wealth and increased employment.

Efficiency became a key word in modern vocabulary and a significant issue in the disputes between organized labor and management. Over time, management goals of increased productivity at the lowest possible costs eclipsed Taylor's additional goals of improving conditions for workers. "Taylorism" became identified with "Fordism" and the creation of simple and repetitive tasks, industrial duplication on an enormous scale, and the creation of the modern assembly line.

Counter-Taylorism developed originally in the European auto industry, as recognition that workers had the intelligence and insight to contribute to the work process. With self-managed work groups, the modern assembly plant was once again transformed but in 2000, when the International Labor Organization published an article called "A Comeback for Taylorism?" that described the revival of the regimented work place.

Taylor really helped create the science of management as a separate and distinct area of life and of academic concentration. Peter Drucker, known popularly as "a management guru"—that is, one who studies how management should function—received a Presidential Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush in the summer of 2002. The award in its way also honored Taylor. Although Drucker spent more than 50 years refining management practices, it was Taylor who invented "management" as a "science."

Key Players

Taylor, Frederick Winslow (1856-1915): Dedicated his life to transforming industrial practices in all areas, allowing management to have absolute control over the workplace. He introduced the practice of "scientific" evaluation to work processes. Known popularly for "Taylorism," which includes time-and-motion study, he created management as a distinct class and topic of study.

See also: Homestead Lockout; Panic of 1873; Pullman Strike.



Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Foreword by Paul M. Sweezy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Kanigel, Robert. The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. New York: Viking, 1997.

Nelson, Daniel. Managers and Workers: Origins of the New Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920.Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. Scientific Management Comprising Shop Management: The Principles of Scientific Management and Testimony Before the Special House Committee. Foreword by Harlow S. Person. New York: Harper, 1947. Original work published 1911.


Kempe, Martin. "A Comeback for Taylorism? Report from Germany." World of Work (March 2000): 18-20.


Samuel C. Williams Library, Steven Institute of Technology. Special Collections: F. W. Taylor Collection [cited 2 August 2002]. <http://taylor.lib.stevens-tech.edu/>.

KQED Public Broadcasting Web site. Stopwatch: "Frederick Winslow Taylor and the 'Taylorization' of America." [cited 2 August 2002]. http://www.kqed.org/tv/indieproducers/stopwatch/stopwatch2.html .

—Bill Barry

About this article

Taylor and "Scientific Management"

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article