Taylor on Scientific Management

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was a wealthy young man from Philadelphia who never needed to work. But he took a job in a steel works, making his way up from labourer to sub-foreman. Taylor had an obsessive interest in work, or more to the point, how work worked. By 1911 he had published a book about his experiences called The Principles of Scientific Management. This was to have a profound effect on the shape of the management principles and practices of organisations in the era of Fordism. Even in faraway communist Moscow, Ford’s production methods were elevated to the status of an industrial philosophy—Fordizatsia—just as useful to a fledgling communism as it was to capitalism. Of scientific management, Lenin was reported by the Communist Party’s newspaper, Pravda, to have said: ‘we should try out every scientific and progressive suggestion of the Taylor system’. Taylor’s and Ford’s insights reached into the heart of the industrial culture of work. Scientific management involved taking apart the elements of work, analysing them, and working out how each worker could get more done in less time. This was the stuff of time and motion studies, stopwatches and vigilant surveillance, techniques that would determine optimum efficiency:

Taylor created principles of ‘scientific management’ to optimise the productivity of every worker, something he considered workers could never figure out for themselves:

First. Find, say, ten or fifteen different men … who are especially skilful in doing the particular work to be analysed.

Second. Study the exact series of elementary operations or motions which each of these men uses in doing the work which is being investigated, as well as the implements each man uses.

Third. Study with a stop watch the time required to make each of these elementary movements and then select the quickest way of doing each element of the work.

Fourth. Eliminate all false movements, slow movements and useless movements.

Fifth. After doing away with all unnecessary movements, collect into one series the quickest and best movements.

When Taylor joined Bethlehem Iron Company, a large and successful military contractor in Pennsylvania, the company was experiencing serious production bottlenecks. Taylor decided to apply his methods to the work of the labourers. He performed his time and motion study, eliminating ‘false’, ‘slow’ and ‘useless’ movements, and presented the results back to the labourers. This is Taylor’s assistant, C.H. Buckley, describing the labourers’ response:

When he receives his instruction card, he glances at the time allowed for each operation and the total time to finish the piece. He then begins a mental calculation based on his work experience with similar work, the result of which is ‘Impossible!’ A very stupid observer can readily see this stamped on his countenance.

Taylor would confront the man with a stopwatch the day after he had tried to match the times on the card. The result was that the operation could be completed in the time. With the prospect of a bonus, the instructions appeared more reasonable and achievable. Having put Taylor’s scientific management system in place, large cost savings were made by the company. Seventy-five men were working for Bethlehem, shifting pig-iron ingots off railroad cars. On average, each man shifted 12.5 tons per day. Taylor studied the matter and decided that this should be 47 to 48 tons per day:

Our first step was the scientific selection of the workman. In dealing with workmen under this type of management, it is an inflexible rule to talk to and deal with only one man at a time … [W]e selected one … to start with. He was a little Pennsylvania Dutchman … This man we shall call Schmidt.

Schmidt was called out from among the gang of pig-iron handlers and talked to somewhat in this way:

‘Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?’

‘Vell, I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Oh yes, you do. What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.’

‘Vell, I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Oh, come now, you answer my questions. What I want to find out is whether you are a high priced man or one of these cheap fellows here. What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all those cheap fellows are getting.’

‘Did I vant $1.85 a day? Vas dot a high-priced man? Vell, yes, I vas a high-priced man.’

‘Oh, you are aggravating me. Of course you want $1.85 a day — every one wants it. You know perfectly well that that has very little to do with your being a high-priced man. For goodness’ sake, answer my questions, and don’t waste any more of my time. Now, come over here. You see that pile of pig iron?’


‘You see that car?’


‘Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will load that pig iron on that car tomorrow for $1.85. Now wake up and answer my question. Tell me whether you are a high-priced man or not…’

‘Vell, den, I was a high-priced man.’

‘Now, hold on, hold on. You know just as well as I do that a high-priced man has to do exactly as he’s told from morning to night … Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you to do to-morrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that straight through the day. And what’s more, no talk back.

This seems to be rather rough talk. And indeed it would be if applied to an educated mechanic, or even an educated laborer. With a man of the mentally sluggish type of Schmidt it is appropriate and not unkind, since it is appropriate in fixing his attention on the high wages which he wants and away from what, if it were called to his attention, he would possibly consider impossibly hard work … Now, one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type … Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word ‘percentage’ has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful … If Schmidt had been allowed to attack the pile of 47 tons of pig iron without the guidance or direction of a man who understood the art, or science, of handling pig iron, in his desire to earn high wages he would have tired himself out by 11 or 12 o’clock in the day.

Wrege, Charles D., and Ronald G. Greenwood. 1991. Frederick W Taylor, The Father of Scientific Management: Myth and Reality. Homewood, Illinois: Business One Irwin. p. 254. || Amazon || WorldCat

Clutterbuck, David and Stuart Crainer. 1990. Makers of Management: Men and Women who Changed the Business World. London: Macmillan. p. 26.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1911. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. 44–46, 59. || Amazon || WorldCat

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