The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency
by Robert Kanigel
Viking. 675 pp. $34.95
In last spring’s elections in France, the soon-to-be victorious socialists implored voters not to give in to the tayloriste pressures of the global economy, or to allow French companies to become taylorisé. In a number of foreign languages, indeed, the name of the American industrialist Frederick Winslow Taylor still stands for everything bad about the modern workplace. If his name is not similarly invoked in his native country, some would say that is because we live so deeply inside his system we no longer even see it.
Taylor (1856-1915) invented time studies, the manufacturing process for tungsten steel, and personnel departments. More generally, he was the first champion of “scientific management,” which placed at the center of business life the cult of white-collar expertise and the relentless quest for efficiency. All this is summed up in one of Taylor’s famous aphorisms: “In the past the man was first; in the future, the system must be first.”
That Taylor is the father of 20th-century work-life is a claim routinely made. The management consultant Peter Drucker ranks Taylor with Darwin, Freud, and Marx as a shaper of our world. If so, he is a no less ambiguous figure than they, for his admirers ranged from the journalist Walter Lippmann to V.I. Lenin, from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to Mussolini. In The One Best Way, Robert Kanigel examines, eight decades after Taylor’s death, what it is he wrought.
Taylor was born just outside Philadelphia. On his father’s side he was descended from the biggest landowners in Bucks County, on his mother’s from a family of prominent abolitionists and feminists who were intimate with William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. For Kanigel, both inheritances are important, if in complicated ways.
First, the wealth of his father’s side. Unlike the “true Old Philadelphian . . . who is born retired,” Taylor would boast throughout his life of having left Exeter, rejected Harvard, and started work as a factory apprentice. This, Taylor felt, gave him the bona fides to dismiss complaints from workers about the harshness of his innovations; he, after all, had been one of them. But Kanigel shows that in fact Taylor chose the shop floor not as a career but as a means of grooming himself for the front office. He was a factory hand who would benefit both recreationally from his family’s wealth (a series of mansions, trips to Europe, magnificent rose gardens) and professionally from his family’s connections, particularly among the industrialists who funded his ideas and promoted him up the management ladder.
Second, the progressive enthusiasms of his mother’s side. Taylor claimed to be a revolutionary, but according to Kanigel he never had an inspiration that was not already in the air. His parents worried throughout his Exeter years that his grades were too high; knowing him to be “no genius,” they fretted that he must be punishing himself. His boyhood hobbies were all fads of the day: egg-collecting, gymnastics, bicycle-riding, sculling, tennis. The one thing he valued most about his apprenticeship among the proletarians was the chance to learn the vocabulary of swearing; throughout his life he would be partial to Anglo-Saxon words, which he considered more “virile” than their Romance counterparts (hence his preference for “gang boss” over the more effeminate “supervisor”).
Not until late in his career did Taylor conceive an overarching idea of what he was doing or what he had, in fact, achieved. Scientific management, although he described it as a “mental revolution,” was not a system but a series of piecemeal innovations. The earliest of these came in 1881, when the twenty-five-year-old Taylor, who had joined the staff of the fledgling Midvale Steel Company three years earlier, became a gang boss and decided to solve the problem of “soldiering” that he had observed during his apprenticeship. This was the tacit agreement among workers paid by the piece to do less work than they were capable of. It was a matter not of laziness but of economic self-defense; once their productivity rose to their capacity, proprietors would cut the rate, leaving them working much harder but just as ill-paid.
Taylor’s bright idea was the “differential rate,” which, by increasing the amount paid per piece as productivity rose, theoretically gave workers an incentive to improve. When even this turned out to be useless, Taylor resorted to the stopwatch, and in the process invented the job of efficiency expert. Breaking down each task into as many as several dozen subtasks, he observed workers during their most productive moments and timed their performance. When he got a reading on their optimal output, he subtracted an arbitrary percentage for such workplace exigencies as resting and trips to the bathroom and then used this output as the threshold for a new and higher pay rate. Foremen and workmen who could not meet it were to be fired.
Taylor had hit upon a system that could be applied not just to the factory floor but to practically everything. Using his stopwatch-driven search for the “one best way,” he put a halt to drunkenness at the Midvale plant; developed a new flexible steam hammer; invented a device for measuring ball-bearings that was accurate to one ten-thousandth of an inch; and became the world’s leading expert on drive-belt endurance. Most importantly, while in the employ of Bethlehem Steel, he and the dipsomaniac metallurgist Maunsel White invented a new heat-treated “tool steel” that doubled industry productivity and remains the basis for the tungsten steel used for practically everything today. Outside the factory, as he and others quickly saw, Taylor’s principles were adaptable to home, university, government, and the military. “Nothing,” writes Kanigel, “was too slight to escape study and improvement.”
The man behind the method was mercurial. In family life he could be doting—he adopted three of the four children of an insane man, Dr. William Aiken, who had shot his wife and killed himself (the fourth and oldest sibling, then eleven years old, was Conrad, who would become the famous writer). That, however, is the only evidence of warm-heartedness that emerges from this biography. Taylor, Kanigel tells us, had a “genius for making enemies.” He was not above industrial espionage, and in the pre-Teddy Roosevelt years counseled the (then-common) practices of price-fixing and collusion. What is more, he failed at much he undertook. Bethlehem Steel eventually fired him, he ran a pair of paper mills into the ground, the entire workforce of his Simonds ball-bearing plant walked out on him, and machinists struck the armory in Watertown, Massachusetts, that was a showpiece of the Taylor system.
Nonetheless, managers had an abiding respect for his innovations, and they flocked by the dozens to Boxly, his Pennsylvania mansion, where he delivered a regular spiel that verged on the monomaniacal. He also attracted apostles who spread his theories into the workplaces of America. These included Frank Gilbreth, the efficiency expert who would write the enduringly popular memoir, Cheaper by the Dozen. Another acolyte, Morris Cooke, boiled down Taylor’s talks into The Principles of Scientific Management, a book that became “the Bible of American management” and was soon translated into dozens of languages.
Five years after his book had made him an international celebrity, Taylor was dead at fifty-nine. What of his system remains? Kanigel concludes with a 60-page book-within-a-book examining its ambiguous fallout. He explores how Taylorism differs from assembly-line “Fordism” (to Kanigel’s mind, the latter is merely an application of the former); whether Taylorism was democratic or despotic (it was democratic, Kanigel thinks, in its removal of favoritism and arbitrary powers, but undemocratic in its denial to working people of any individuality or any voice in management); and even whether Taylorism, as some scholars have argued, provided the organizing principles for the Nazi death camps (Kanigel answers an emphatic no).
This tour of Taylor’s legacy is the most engrossing part of the book, but takes up far too little of it. For the rest, Kanigel’s treatment, though balanced and comprehensive, is cluttered with excessive detail about Taylor’s life—the curriculum at Exeter, techniques for molding pig iron, lathe-bit sales, the Mitscherlich papermaking process, and so on. That is unfortunate, because the nature of his legacy deserves to be reexamined.
Is Taylorism the perfect metaphor for modernity, particularly in its capitalist aspect? In the Eisenhower years, which saw the growth of corporations organized along military lines and the cult of expertise at its height, many observers on the Left direly predicted that Taylorism (whether they called it that or not) was destined to permeate every area of our lives. As late as the mid-1970’s, the Marxist sociologist Harry Braverman made Taylor the villain of his Labor and Monopoly Capital.
But this Marxist reading had things backward. In essence, Taylorism was itself nothing but a quest to turn companies into little planned economies. As the 1980’s and 1990’s have dramatically shown, entities organized around the Taylorite assumption that there is “one best way,” whether they are businesses like IBM or whole empires like the Soviet Union, are generally punished or forced to change, and if not sooner then later. At the end of the century, we may finally be escaping the grip of this assumption, and should even be prepared to concede that it takes more than one metaphor to encompass modernity’s boundless variety.