Productivity revolutions and the most misunderstood man in history

by eskokilpi

Few figures in the history of management have had a greater impact than Frederick Winslow Taylor. The irony is that there have also been few who have been so greatly misunderstood and so gravely misquoted.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 to a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Poor eyesight forced the very talented young man to give up on the idea of going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer like his father. Instead, almost by accident, he went to work in a pump-manufacturing company whose owners were friends of the Taylor family. At that time, industrial work was far beneath the attention and interest of wealthy and educated people. Taylor, very exceptionally, started as a manual worker and gained shop-floor experience at the company, the Enterprise Hydraulic Works. He experienced the factory conditions personally and saw from the inside what was going on. As a result, he was the first person to talk openly about poor manual work efficiency. What ultimately started his study of work was not interest in productivity, but his disgust with the growing hatred between employers and employees. Taylor thought, contrary to Karl Marx, that this conflict was unnecessary.

His mission was to make workers more productive so that they could earn more money. In contrast to what many writers claim, Taylor’s main motivation was not efficiency, but the creation of a society in which owners and workers had a common interest.

It did not go very well.

Workers unions at the time were craft monopolies. Membership was often restricted to the sons and relatives of existing members. They required an apprenticeship of many years and had no systematic training. At that time, you were not allowed to write down instructions. Some historians claim that normally there were not even drawings of the work to be done. It was widely accepted that there was a mystique to craft skills. The members were sworn to secrecy and were not permitted to discuss their work with non-members. Before Taylor, people took it for granted that it took years and years of experience before you could turn out high quality products.

Taylor’s crime in the eyes of the unions was his revolutionary idea that there is no skilled work based on some mystique, there is just work. All manual work could be studied and divided into series of repetitive motions that could be taught. Work-related training was a genuine innovation. Any worker who was willing to be educated and followed the “one right way” of doing things should be called a “first-class” worker deserving a first-class pay. This was much more than the worker got during their long years of apprenticeship.

Taylor offended everybody.

He also insulted the owners. Among other things, he publicly called them “hogs”. The biggest insult was that the authority in the plants should not be based on ownership but on something he called superior knowledge. Taylor insisted that the workers should also benefit from the increased productivity that his scientific management produced. He wrote in 1911: “The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity of the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee”.

He was the first person to demand that managers should be educated. He thought that management should be a profession and managers should be professionals. This led the owners’ associations to  attack him bitterly as a socialist and a troublemaker. Again he was seen as a criminal!

But he was right! The application of knowledge to manual work created a tremendous boost in productivity. By the 1940s Scientific Management had swept the industrialized world despite the early resistance. As a result the workers, rather than the capitalists were the true beneficiaries of the industrial revolution that was changing society.

The working class largely became transformed  into a new social structure and true social innovation, the middle class.

When Taylor started working, nine out of ten people were manual workers. Today, nine out of ten people are knowledge workers. We ask some of the same questions, but the world is totally different. Taylor’s revolutionary ideas are over 100 years old. His thinking was based on Newtonian mechanics and his ways of understanding human behavior are not up to the task any more.

Scientific Management as a concept is not only unhelpful, but totally outdated. Still the struggles we face with productivity may be the same. If you look at what the labor unions and employers’ organizations are opposing today, you may find the seeds for the next revolution in productivity.


Resource library. Peter Drucker on HBR.