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Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • Color Us Green -- January 1998
    A heretical new approach to economics puts ecology first -- and may change the way we think about growth.

  • The Deep Slumber of Decided Opinion -- December 1997
    Those who hail the virtues of trade without limits are this era's reactionaries.

  • A Barbarous Frenzy -- November 1997
    A new book documents the Rape of Nanking, China's "forgotten Holocaust."

  • Let Them Eat Empathy -- October 1997
    The era of big government has given way to the era of sharing leftovers.

  • Down With Majority Rule -- September 1997
    Imagine an America where the majority does not rule. That may be what's needed to resuscitate our political system.

  • Talkin' About a Coalition -- August 1997
    Is there a new Democratic majority in the making? Perhaps, but what will it stand for?

  • Nasty NAFTA -- July 1997
    It's time for Congress to rein in NAFTA.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

  • The King of Drudge
    A new biography of the man behind the assembly line -- whose ideas need to be acknowledged and abandoned

    by Jack Beatty

    February 11, 1998

    The One Best Way Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), the progenitor of "scientific management," arguably has had more influence on daily life than any other thinker or historical actor of the past century. "Taylor's thinking ... so permeates the soil of modern life," the award-winning science writer Robert Kanigel writes in his comprehensive recent biography of Taylor, The One Best Way, that "we no longer realize it's there." Kanigel's summary of Taylor's core ideas bears out this judgment; he credits Taylor with the thinking behind "standardization, the split of planning from doing, the use of experiment to study the seemingly unstudiable, the setting of precisely defined tasks, the emphasis on efficiency." Taylorism, in short, set the rules for the era of mass production -- now drawing to a close.

    Frederick Taylor grew up just outside Philadelphia, in Germantown. Like many Philadelphians of gentle birth, his father was "born retired," and young Fred and his siblings had all the advantages of improving travel and leisure. Sent to Exeter with every expectation that he would go on to Harvard, Fred dropped out in his third year. Conjugating irregular Greek verbs was not for him; a childhood habit of examining railroad timetables had ripened into the ambition to become a mechanical engineer. A few months after leaving Exeter, Fred Taylor became an apprentice in a small Philadelphia steam-pump manufacturing company.

    Taylor quickly became a skilled machinist. (Kanigel describes in I-know-what-I'm-talking-about detail the noise and grit and minutely exacting work of casting steel.) Though Taylor was working to learn, not to survive, and still living in his parent's new architect-designed house, his fellow workers treated him well. They also inducted him into the mysteries of their craft, including the practice of "soldiering" -- of doing less than "what you could manage to do if pressed." This slacking off, though he indulged it himself, confirmed young Taylor's hypertrophied conviction that human beings were engineering imperfections. For the rest of his life, he strove to make sure that no one would ever soldier again.

    Promoted to a supervisory job at a new mill, he began experiments into the ways to encourage efficiency with which his name would be forever linked. One of these was incentive pay. For working harder, he thought, workers should be paid more per piece produced, a maxim consistently violated by myopic employers. Taylor later argued that his system was a boon to working people, who could earn higher wages under Taylorism. That was true enough as far as it went. But the system that he created required a painful sacrifice from workers. Taylor broke the steel worker's job down into its smallest motions, then timed and codified them so they could be easily taught to unskilled workers -- in effect, draining the skill from skilled work. "In our scheme, we do not ask for the initiative of our men," he said in 1906. "All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick."

    Taylorism caught on across America and the world because it worked. Peter Drucker hails Taylor as the father of "the productivity revolution," the basis of material prosperity in the twentieth century. Henry Ford's assembly line was a Taylorist innovation. The logic of the assembly line -- the division of labor taken as far as technology would permit -- was applicable to factory and office alike.

    Taylor propagated his views on the workplace in books and pamphlets and through the apostles of efficiency who gathered around him. He dignified his observations by calling them "scientific management," but that title was vitiated by the arbitrary nature of his calculations. By giving work a scientific basis he sought to transcend labor-management antagonism. This was naive in the extreme, and very early on Taylorism came under fire from labor unions and politicians influenced by them. Taylor, who waved his years as a machinist as a moral credential, styled himself the friend of the workman. But his blunt views about the limited intellectual capacity of ordinary workmen undercut that claim. And his efficiencies tended to make work more onerous and alienating. To cut down on time-wasting conversation, for example, he seated telephone operators too far apart to talk to one another. Dictating the penmanship on time cards, establishing production quotas for laborers, cutting the time it took to make a cast-iron ring from fourteen to three hours, Taylor grew rich as one of the nation's first management consultants.

    Chronically late for dinners and meetings, Taylor "enjoyed constraints on his time no more than anyone else," Kanigel writes, yet constraining freedom was the essence of his system. This may be one reason why authoritarians from Lenin to Mussolini boosted it.

    The changes in the workplace wrought by Taylorism look less sweeping when set against the changes promised by the information revolution. Drucker writes that "the knowledge society will be the first society in which ordinary common people -- and that means most people -- do not earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. It is the first society in which 'honest work' does not mean a callused hand." This is far more than a change in the design of work. "It is a change in the human condition." The contemporary workplace increasingly consigns the Taylorist tasks to machines, leaving people free, in theory, to exercise human powers like initiative, synthesis, flexibility, judgment, and imagination. Though factory workers and secretaries still perform Taylorized work, the man himself belongs to history. One hopes that the wave of the future will sweep Taylor away.

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    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

    Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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