Mass production suffered a long and fitful birth when it appeared in America in the mid-18th century. Oliver Evans, Linus Yale, Lillian and Frank Gilbreth and, of course, Henry Ford made huge contributions to its development. But it was Frederick Winslow Taylor who developed the underlying theory of scientific management that gave mass production its enduring form. Scientific management captivated the American consciousness and catapulted Taylor’s ideas onto center stage, where they have remained ever since. Yet until the publication of Robert Kanigel’s “The One Best Way,” very little was known about the man who revolutionized the workplace.
Taylor was the man for his time. Born in 1856 into a well-to-do Philadelphia family, he appeared just as the Industrial Revolution began. Most work was still done by hand, and it was slow and expensive. Assembly lines were still rather primitive. What they lacked was the means to integrate workers with machines, but by the time Taylor died in 1915, he had succeeded in doing just that.
Kanigel, a science writer who teaches writing at the University of Baltimore, relates Taylor’s life story in panoramic detail. As a boy, Taylor traveled with his family through Europe long before such trips were fashionable. His years at Phillips Exeter Academy were difficult, and he was plagued with eye problems that forced him in 1875 to work in the industrial shops of Philadelphia rather than pursue an education at Harvard.
Ironically, it was in these miserable shops that Taylor came into his own. He kept prodigious notes for more than a decade on all manners of things, including how workers did their jobs and how long it took to do them. At first, it was a hodgepodge of ideas. He recorded how long a job took. Then he considered how long it should take. Finally, he tried to understand what workers were capable of doing: Just how far could the human machine be pushed?
He had noticed that steam hammers ran with optimal efficiency just before they broke, an observation that convinced him that systems usually ran best under stress. It was a conviction further supported by his observations of cutting tools, which cut most sharply when they were red-hot, just before they melted. These were principles he would extend to the human laborer.
Taylor was convinced that if industry were to advance, labor had to be specialized and organized around continuous processes. It would take a military-like organization to control such operations. Orders would flow from the top down: from superior to subordinate, from department to each subunit. The planning of work had to be divided into steps. In this way, workers would become extensions of their machines. Taylor was also convinced that workers should be paid precisely what they were worth, otherwise they would become shiftless and extravagant. If they realized that they could earn more by working harder, they would produce more.
By 1910, Taylor’s ideas had reached only a small circle of efficiency experts and production engineers, but within a few short years, with the rapid advance of mass production, his ideas attracted a worldwide audience. The rest, we can say, is history. Scientific management and efficiency spread into almost every American institution: the home, the farm, the factory. Even public schools were forged in Taylor’s image. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond the reach of scientific management.
Not surprisingly, Taylor was worshiped and vilified. Practical industrialists believed that scientific management and mass production freed men from the stultifying world of work done by hand. But when they realized its full implications, trade unionists and social activists ultimately dissented, claiming that mass production stripped workers of their humanity.
“The One Best Way” could have been an important book, but it is flawed by its very profuseness. There is little evidence of efficiency in its 570 pages of text, which is unfortunate because there is a splendid 200-page book buried somewhere within it. Perhaps its problem stems from the lack of any narrative thread or strong analysis. Maybe the lack of focus arises from Kanigel’s love of the subject of work on the whole (though he doesn’t seem to have any particular love for Taylor) or his enthusiasm for history (though the book isn’t particularly useful for students of history because few of its sources are identified). Most troubling, though, is the fact that the excessive detail dulls the reader; many pages are devoted to Taylor’s distant cousins and other diversions.
Scientific management was a powerful idea that helped fuel America’s industrial dominance. Taylor’s relentless quest for efficiency spawned an adversarial culture that pitted worker against manager and created pervasive distrust in the workplace. Its consequences spread far beyond industrial plants and into nearly every social institution. Today, the hidden costs of scientific management are becoming self-evident, and we are learning how to throw off Taylor’s legacy. Kanigel’s book reminds us how long it has taken.