Dictatorship of the technocrat

The One Best Way
April 3, 1998

Why write a biography of an obsessive American mechanical engineer whose life (1856-1915) ended in humiliation and withdrawal? Because, despite his failure to win widespread support for Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor continues to be regarded as the most significant figure in management theory and practice. Taylor's thinking exemplifies a key feature of modern consciousness: a belief in the virtue of redesigning life in the name of efficiency and productivity.

Outside a specialist readership, Taylor's name is probably associated with time-and-motion studies. To compare the influence of Taylor with that of Darwin, Marx and Freud, as Robert Kanigel does, is surely to make a claim as grandiose as Taylor's own dreams of the utopian potential of scientific management. Still, prosaic efforts to apply calculative reason to the seemingly intractable problems of industrial organisation have contributed to the shaping of the modern world.

In a sense, "we are all Taylorised now". We "moderns" are preoccupied with, dominated by, and constituted within a secular religion of efficiency and productivity. Especially in the world of work, life is constituted as a series of tasks - tasks which we are encouraged to analyse and evaluate with a view to accomplishing them more speedily. How might a bit of time be trimmed here? Can a shortcut be found there? In universities, how might lecturers be trained and accredited in a way that accords with "best practice"? Might research funding be more productively used if "research-active" staff and departments were differentiated and evaluated?

Taylor did not initiate such thinking but he did distil it and promote it. Scientific management, he claimed, provides a rational, fairer way of organising activity - from loading pig iron on to railway wagons to designing rackets and putters or cultivating the perfect kind of grass for golf greens.

Taylor believed that the use of impartial, "scientific" methods - which have their contemporary equivalents in quality assessments and the managerialisation of UK universities - would enable new managers to organise tasks in "the best way". No longer would work organisation rely upon the caprice and cajoling of "gang bosses". Instead, the design of tasks and the wage-effort bargain would be established through an impartial process of "rational" calculation, as exemplified in Taylor's differential piece-rate system.

As a teenager, Taylor intensified his own studying process. He drove himself to work long hours on Greek, Latin and mathematics. He became what he would later term a "first-class" young man who gained a place at Harvard. He also suffered from intense, recurrent headaches and sleeplessness. His parents advised him, for the sake of his health, to deviate from his class destiny as a lawyer to take up an apprenticeship in a foundry. By a quirk of commonsense parental judgement, which optometry would later support with a diagnosis of astigmatism, the genteelly bred Taylor became a "gang boss" at 23. He was by then set on a course that would eventually earn him the accolade (or perhaps it is an insult) of being the "father of modern management".

To lend "real world" credentials to his esoteric methods and calculations, Taylor repeatedly referred to his shop-floor experience. He claimed to be familiar with shop-floor workers whom he counted his friends. Kanigel shows how, as with so many of Taylor's stories, this claim was laced with humbug, deception and showmanship. For all his talk of being a friend of the working person, Taylor maintained a social distance between himself and these "friends". So little did they know of Taylor that it was two-and-a-half years before they discovered him to be "a gentleman's son".

The pattern of deception recurred. Taylor frequently used the case of "Schmidt", the ace pig-iron handler, to illustrate how his methods could increase the productivity of a "common labourer". Kanigel reveals Taylor's description of Schmidt as a "leaden ox" to be very wide of the mark. Noll (Schmidt's real name) could read and write; and he was sufficiently enterprising to buy a small parcel of land and build his own house. Kanigel also reveals how, when asked to check the proofs of a transcript of his appearance before members of a House of Representatives committee, Taylor attempted to replace the rambling responses with passages from his books.

Like many modern management gurus, Taylor was a gifted, evangelical marketer of his ideas. An absolute conviction of their truth and virtue fuelled the relentless pursuit of his vision. The cleansing power of Taylor's "mental revolution" promised to create a modern industrial order of peace and plenty. However, as Taylor sought to impose his fanatical, imperious will upon others, he made many enemies. His unequivocal successes were in developing machines to cut or bash metals more efficiently. Flesh proved to be a less malleable material.

Taylor urged that "In the past the man has been first. In the future the System must be first." In a context where skilled labour was scarce and unskilled immigrant labour was plentiful, the promise of Taylorism as a system had its appeal to employers. What the devotees of Taylorism were inclined to disregard or dismiss was the value workers placed upon custom and practice. For them, speed-up signified stress, divisiveness, deskilling, job loss - in short a degrading loss of economic and social identity.

Today, Taylor's systemising slogan is echoed by the tin gods of total quality management and business process re-engineering. They, too, are forgetful of how such systems are merely the product of a particular, technocratic vision. In all but the most totalitarian of organisations or societies, this vision will always be contested by those with other values and visions.

The House of Representatives committee convened late in Taylor's life, in 1912, was to investigate "Taylorism". This hearing was precipitated by a strike at the Watertown Arsenal where Taylor's methods had been introduced. For the first time, his ideas and claims were exposed to sustained scrutiny. Under cross- examination, Taylor was obliged to offer clear, rational responses instead of his customary rhetoric and pontification. The pretensions of his system to be impartial were laid bare; its arbitrary or "witchcraft" elements were exposed. It also became clear that the "cooperation" of workers wishing to remain in employment was conditional upon their compliance with the dictates of the new management. Taylor's science demanded technocratic dictatorship. Taylor's specious defence of his methods, repeated by successive generations of management gurus, was that his "scientific" approach took the politics out of managing; and that residual problems arose only from its imperfect implementation.

Following the House of Representatives hearing, Taylor retreated from public life. He travelled and took care of his sick wife whose mental illness, Kanigel suggests, was not unrelated to Taylor's control-freak inclination to divest her of responsibility for making her own decisions. Yet, despite a chequered career and his eventual fall from grace at the House of Representatives hearing, Taylor continues to be identified as the most important contributor to management theory and practice. This remarkable fact alone merits the extended study of Taylor's ideas.

Kanigel's prologue usefully signals the historical significance of Taylor's thinking to which it returns, albeit rather cursorily, in the concluding chapters. This chapter is strongly recommended to students of scientific management. The book's central sections provide an elegantly crafted, highly readable and instructive synthesis of existing material on Taylor. For students of the contribution of management thinking to modernity, Kanigel's book will be of less relevance. Perversely for a book which puts Taylor's influence on a level with that of Darwin, Marx and Freud, The One Best Way says much less about the formation of modernity than it does about Taylor the man.

Hugh Willmott is professor of organisational analysis, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

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

Author - Robert Kanigel
ISBN - 0 316 88294 1
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £20.00
Pages - 676

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