The One Best Way: Frederick Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

The world’s first and most famous preacher of the efficiency gospel was Frederick Winslow Taylor, born on March 20, 1856, into a prominent Quaker family in an upper-middle-class suburb of Philadelphia.

His ideas permeate our thinking to this day, a classic example of a thinker of whom Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought.”

Today, if you work in a professional firm, you are still moving to the measure of this man’s thought. Peter Drucker wrote that Taylor’s Scientific Management (SM) idea is perhaps “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.”

Robert Kanigel has written a scholarly, well-balanced, book on Taylor’s life. At over 600 pages, it is not an easy read, so I thought I’d provide a review, albeit long, that synthesizes the work of Taylor as well as this enigma known as “efficiency.”

Taylorism Defined—Sort of

Taylor set out to prove that management is “a true science” with “laws as exact, and as clearly defined…as the fundamental principles of engineering.”

Thus Taylorism can be defined as:

The application of scientific methods to the problem of obtaining maximum efficiency in industrial work or the like.

To his credit, he viewed knowledge as the prime productive resource. The problem is he thought the knowledge only existed among management, not the workers, and that the system would embed the knowledge, saying in 1911: “In the past the man has been first. In the future the System must be first.” He separated the doing from the thinking.

Economists of the day coined the term “Deskilling,” the idea that knowledge lies with management, not the workers. Taylor, in effect, help create the white-collar workforce.

Taylor wasn’t as interested in how long a job took, but rather how long it should take. He searched for the ideal human performance. Work consisted of discrete pieces, each of which could timed and studied to maximize speed.

He began work at Midvale Steel in 1878, where he became an industrial engineer, testing his time theories on the factory floor among his coworkers.

He pleaded, cajoled, and even fined workers, creating a shop full of resentment. He believed a 35% pay increase was necessary to induce workers to extraordinary efforts, even more for some types of work, such as 70-80%, or even a doubling.

But how do you get workers to work faster? Pay them. Accumulative rates, Taylor called it the differential rate: you earned an amount that depended on your output for the whole day: thirty-five cents per piece, say, for producing less than what Taylor’s science decreed, fifty cents for exceeding it. And you earned the fifty cents for the whole output, not just the amount exceeding the first tier.

The Spread of Taylorism

After he left Midvale, Taylor became a “management consultant” in the 1890s, charging $35 per day (approximately $1,000 today).

He presented a paper on June 23, 1903 at the 47th meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers titled “Shop Management.” In it, he laid out time-and-motion studies, including a sketch of a decimal-dial stopwatch.

With the notoriety this paper achieved, SM came to be described as a religion, with Taylor the messiah, attracting both disciples and apostles, and the rest becoming members of the church.

A writer to the New York Times asked: “And didn’t the legal profession need some science, too?” …get Mr. Taylor to take a few stop watch observations in a typical court, and in a typical lawyer’s office, and make an estimate of the existing and obtainable efficiencies.”

Sound familiar? The father of both the timesheet and the billable hour, Reginald Heber Smith, was greatly influenced by “Speedy Taylor,” as evidenced by his writing “Efficiency and economy are a race against time.”

Taylor’s champions included Louis Brandeis, “the People’s Lawyer,” and Ida Tarbell, the legendary muckraking journalist. Henry L. Gantt—known for his eponymous chart—was a disciple of Taylor.

Frank Gilbreth, a former bricklayer, read the 1903 paper and became a disciple, calling the paper “a work of genius.” Gilbreth was even more obsessed with motions than was Taylor, and 2 of his 12 children later wrote a portrait of him titled Cheaper by the Dozen, later made into a Hollywood movie with Clifton Webb as Gilbreth.

If Taylor was idiosyncratic, Gilbreth was an even stranger duck, as David Boyle humorously points out in The Sum of Our Discontent:

Gilbreth was obsessed with measuring, breaking down every manual operation into what he called


  1. What a damning portrait!

    It is high time these LEAN Six-Sigma Guru Ninja Turtles go back to Highpockets’ swamp. They are driving creativity and innovation out of businesses and destroying what they profess to improve.

  2. nice blog

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