Management Thinkers: Why Frederick Winslow Taylor still matters

"The guru's guru's guru" - MT's Management Thinkers series outlines the principles from key management thinkers of the past, and explains why their views still matter.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 16 Oct 2023
Also in:
Indepth Analysis

If Peter Drucker is the guru’s guru, then Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 - 1915) was the guru’s guru’s guru. The American engineer, management theorist, tennis ace and serial patent filer, was, Drucker wrote, “the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic study and observation.” Taylor’s theory – known as ‘scientific management’ – was devised, not by experiments in a lab, but through his experiences as a machinist, labourer, plant manager and general manager.

The four principles at the core of his theory are:

1. The most efficient way to perform a task, based on scientific study, should be used.

2. Each employee should be scientifically selected, trained and developed to do the work best suited to their talents.

3. Each employee should be given detailed instruction and their performance closely supervised.

4. There is a clear division of labour and responsibility between management, who plan tasks and supervise them, and employees, who carry them out.

Taylor got his big break as a management consultant in 1910 when lawyer Louis Brandeis, representing companies protesting against planned hikes in rail prices, read his work, labelled it ‘scientific management’ and asked him to testify to the Interstate Commerce Commission which Taylor duly did, declaring that the railroads could save $1m a day if they were more efficient.

Taylor’s ideas were enormously influential in America (where, bizarrely, they were even applied to churches), France (which has always loved theoretical explanations) and, for a time, the Soviet Union. His emphasis on the science of work seemed to Vladimir Lenin to echo his belief that Marxist-Leninism was a scientific theory, not an ideological one. Under Joseph Stalin, Taylor’s emphasis on efficiency was distorted into the orchestrated madness of five-year-plans, which set absurd targets for production that management pretended to achieve.

Surprisingly, given that Japan has so consciously followed America’s model of industrial development, Taylorism never really caught on there. Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, known as the ‘god of Japanese management’, once scolded the West: “Your firms are built on the Taylor model. Even worse, so are your heads. With your bosses doing the thinking while your workers wield the screwdrivers, you’re convinced that this is the right way to run a business.”

In Matsushita’s view, the marketplace had become so competitive, unpredictable and hazardous that companies could only survive by “mobilising every ounce of intelligence” they had.

Taylor was prescient when it came to putting productivity at the very heart of his theories. This has remained a semi-continuous preoccupation for companies – and indeed governments – ever since. But his remedies were based on a derogatory view of workers, summed up in the following remark: “Hardly a competent workman can be found who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.”

One of his critics, British industrialist Edward Cadbury, argued back in 1914 that unskilled jobs were already so dull that subdividing them further, leaving less scope for judgement or initiative, would make staff less productive in the long run.

Descended from a pilgrim on the Mayflower, born into a devout Quaker family, the son of a Princeton lawyer and an ardent abolitionist, Taylor had a fierce sense of work as a moral good. And, although his division between management and workers was rigid, he sincerely believed that, if adopted, his ideas would alleviate poverty and suffering. To be fair, he was partly right. When Henry Ford applied Taylor’s ideas to create the modern manufacturing industry in 1914, he doubled workers' pay to $5 a day.

Not everyone saw things that way. At one steel plant, workers broke their machines to protest against being overworked by his methods. And, unlike Ford, many employers ignored his argument that efficiency would only be sustained if they shared the rewards with staff.

Published in 1911, his ‘Principles of Scientific Management’ has been variously described as “the most important management book of the twentieth century” and a “pathogen afflicting management” which subsequent theorists have tried to cure.

Yet three of his insights still seem relevant today: the importance of rewards being clearly outlined and promptly paid; the need to document processes (the genesis of today’s quality standards); and the value of rewarding - and giving due credit to – employees who improve efficiency.

Most of all, Taylor matters because of his insistence that the tried and trusted approach will inevitably, over time, become tired and rusted. During his brief, tumultuous spell at Bethlehem Steel, he studied the way workers used their shovels, devised a more efficient method, making them wealthier and saving the company $75,000 a year (about $2.7m in today’s money).

One of his practices – using a stopwatch to time how productive someone could be in an exact minute – led union leaders to denounce him as the devil incarnate and, after a prolonged strike at one plant led to a Congressional inquiry, he retired, an embittered man. He always insisted that true efficiency – which he was measuring with his stopwatch – was a consequence of method, an insight many modern efficiency ‘experts’ ignore.

Taylor’s conviction that there was “one best way” to do everything stayed with him in retirement. He was at home, watching the grass grow, trying to devise a scientific method for growing the perfect putting green, when he died of pneumonia in 1915. He was 59. Michael Schwartz, producer of a documentary on Taylor, says: “He probably had the last laugh because his ideas about efficiency have come to define the way we work, and the way we live.”

The wisdom of Frederick Winslow Taylor

1. “The most experienced managers therefore frankly place before their workmen the problem of doing the work in the best and most economical way.”

2. “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first... The first object of any good system must be that of developing first class men.”

3. “The most important part of the art of management is the relationship between employers and men.”

4. “The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer and the maximum prosperity for each employee.”

5. “What constitutes a fair day's work will be a question for scientific investigation, instead of a subject to be bargained and haggled over”.

Taylor may have invented the discipline of management theory but even he wasn’t right all the time.

Essential reading

Taylor’s seminal work, Principles of Scientific Management, is still worth reading even if you find yourself disagreeing vehemently with much of it. Less famous, but still useful, is Shop Management, written after his attempt to reform Bethlehem Steel. Both are available online for free, as is Peter Drucker’s essay on his hero.