Digital History

The Rise of Big Business

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Digital History ID 3172



He revolutionized manufacturing by insisting that managers should eliminate unnecessary motions in order to increase output by workers. He gained national visibility in 1910 when Louis Brandeis, the future Supreme Court justice, said that his notions of scientific management could save railroad companies $300 million a year.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) was the first efficiency expert. Using slow-motion photography and stop watches, he broke down the production process into separate movements, then he redesigned the work process to make it more efficient. His advocacy of scientific management earned the admiration of Henry Ford, Benito Mussolini, and Vladimir Lenin. But many workers condemned his time-and-motion studies because his system sought to remove decision making from labor and hand it over to management.

Before Taylor introduced scientific management onto the factory floor, production was largely in the hands of skilled craftsmen, who followed their own routines and worked at their own pace. In the interest of increasing productivity, Taylor advised managers to study, reorganize, and control the work process. The success of his system, he wrote a Bethlehem Steel manager in 1906, required that absolute control must reside in management. Each worker, he said, must receive "clear-cut, definite instructions as to just what he is to do and how he is to do it." His obsession with efficiency spilled over into his family life, where he regimented the lives of his adopted children. He convinced professional baseball that pitching overhand was more efficient than throwing underhand.

Born into a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family, he attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, and, after passing Harvard's admission examination with distinction, apprenticed himself as a pattern maker and machinist to a company that made hydraulic pumps. He subsequently became a machinist at a steel company. Soon, he became obsessed by the idea that management, applying the principles of scientific management could organize the productive process more efficiently, identify the one, best way to perform a job, and increase workers' output. Factories, he believed, should be organized like the military, with directions flowing from superiors to subordinates. He recommended that bonuses go to workers who exceed quotas.

Industry considered him a visionary who made factories more productive by eliminating wasteful motion that allowed the company to cut prices and raise wages. Management argued that Taylor's emphasis on simplified production methods was essential in dealing with a labor force that consisted of unskilled immigrant workers with low proficiency in English. But his time-and-motion studies enraged labor leaders who condemned him as a monster who valued machine-like efficiency more than the health and well being of labor. Trade unionists charged that his system reduced workers to robots. Said one labor leader:

No tyrant or slave driver in the ecstasy of his most delirious dream ever sought to place upon abject slaves a condition more repugnant.

In 1910, a strike broke out at the Waterford Arsenal near Boston, when a manager stood behind a worker with a stopwatch. Two years later, a hostile Congressional committee held hearings about Taylorism. The committee's chair condemned scientific management as undemocratic and dehumanizing.

Although few companies used Taylor's ideas in their pure form, the principles of scientific management were applied on assembly lines, factory floors, secretarial pools, and housework. The relentless quest for efficiency helped to fuel the great gains in productivity in American industry during the 20th century. During World War II, Taylor's principles of scientific management helped American industry convert unskilled workers into welders and shipbuilders in 60 to 90 days. But Taylor's techniques also exacted a cost, increasing stress in the workplace, "de-skilling" manual labor, and widening the gap between technical and manual work, even as it made labor better off.

As early as the late 1920s, Taylorism had begun to provoke a counter-reaction. Between 1927 and 1933, studies were conducted of factory workers at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Illinois. The Hawthorne studies showed that regardless of the changes made in working conditions--increasing or reducing the number and length of breaks or tinkering with lighting--productivity increased. By paying attention to workers and treating their jobs as important, productivity rose. The results of these studies encouraged business managers to adjust workplace conditions and improve interpersonal relations in order to improve worker morale and bolster productivity.

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