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Workingman's Hero Or Fat Cat's Friend?




Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

By Robert Kanigel

Viking 675pp $34.95

He was wealthy and privileged, born into a Philadelphia family where gentlemen didn't work and where a proper education included several years of traveling and living in Europe. His boyhood hobby was collecting birds' eggs--he had 800 of them. He was a top-ranked tennis player at the Young America Cricket Club, and his first patent was for a spoon-shaped tennis racket. His school was Exeter, from which he was expected to move on to Harvard. Of medium build with a thin blond mustache and piercing eyes, Frederick Winslow Taylor was well on his way to becoming just another toff from Philadelphia's elite Main Line.

At 18, he broke rank. Dropping out of Exeter with severe headaches from eyestrain, he apprenticed himself at the Enterprise Hydraulic Works, a steam- pump maker in Philadelphia owned by family friends. The opportunity changed his life, and with it, the entire practice of work. "Taylorism," as every student of late 19th century history learns, turned craft work into assembly line work. It presaged automation and the machine age, gave us speedups, downsizings, and rules for every job. For Taylor haters, it turned workers into robots, mechanized production, gave rise to trade unions, and replaced judgment with the time clock and stop watch. It stripped the workingman of his dignity.

Or did it? As Robert Kanigel recounts in this marvelously done biography, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, perhaps no character in modern business history inspired such strongly held views and left such a legacy. Taylor believed there was one recipe for every task, from shoveling coal to pouring steel. To his supporters--and he had many on the left as well as the right--he was a liberator who got working men and women higher wages by applying scientific methods to the dangerous factory floor. Work better for more pay was his credo. To management, he was a dangerous radical intent on upsetting the equilibrium of the factory--low wages for low output. That there were no moderate opinions of Taylor had to do with his own temperament. "A man of immense spirit, intelligence and tenacity, he managed to alienate, or at least irritate, almost everyone, including many of his own circle of admirers. He was irascible, hard-cussing, forever landing in trouble," writes Kanigel.

A crusade such as Taylor's to bring scientific management to the workplace would have happened at some point anyway. Rational inquiry into all aspects of life was underway, and organizing work was a necessary precursor for all the automation and modern factory practices that followed it. Nor was Taylor possessed of original insights. His forte was rationalizing ideas. "He took fragments of thought and practice and directed them down one tight channel, focused them, packaged them as a single item, and projected it into the twentieth century," notes Kanigel. He was an acute observer. As a boy, he kept detailed journals of his time. As a teenager, traveling through Europe by private coach and train, he graded the Swiss hotels he stayed at by quality and price. Viewing an Austrian salt mine, he made detailed notes about inefficient procedures. By the time he hit the pump factory, he seemed almost predestined to become America's first management consultant.

What was remarkable, though, was his messianic zeal. For 30 years, Taylor barnstormed the country preaching scientific management. He shuttled by train between Maine and Wisconsin, trying to bend factories to his methods. He bet his own money on ventures and lost big, although he later made millions from royalties, patents, and fees. He delivered hundreds of lectures and wrote dozens of articles. In his last years, businessmen vied to attend lectures at Boxly, his Philadelphia estate.

Taylor was 54 when fame struck. Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis, soon to become a Supreme Court Justice, successfully used Taylor's theories to block America's railroads from getting a rate increase. Brandeis said the carriers could offset their rising costs with more widespread use of Taylor's efficiency methods. The federal government agreed. The rail barons were furious, the public delighted.

Numerous historians, psychologists, and polemicists have asked, as Kanigel does: "How did a man who need never work at all, and who actually disdained manual labor, throw himself onto the shop floor, confront what was arguably the thorniest social problem of his day, and devote his life to creating what he conceived as an industrial utopia?"

Some saw him rebelling against his father's lassitude. Others suggested the influence of a dominant Quaker mother. Muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell backed him as a champion of the worker. Lenin, Mussolini, and the Japanese all borrowed his ideas. Politicians called him depraved, but Taylor's real failing was tunnel vision. Hauled before Congress in 1912 to defend himself, he was unable to explain how his system might benefit workers beyond a fatter paycheck. He died three years later at 59, depressed and bewildered.

Today, with fads such as empowerment and reengineering changing the workplace, Kanigel doesn't have to debate Taylor's relevance. All he had to do was tell the clanging, hissing tale of the founder of one of the century's great "ism's." I was sorry when it ended.BY ROBERT DOWLINGReturn to top

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