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Frederick Winslow Taylor

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Biography

Frederick Winslow Taylor was the most influential efficiency engineer of the industrial era, whose theories and techniques of scientific management have shaped the pace and order of modern life.

Taylor was born in 1856 in a suburban part of Philadelphia to a wealthy family. He went to the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy, but, when he turned eighteen, he took the unusual step of declining admission to Harvard University and signing up to be an apprentice at a pump works in Philadelphia. After four years at the pump works’ machine shop, he took a position at Midvale Steel, which made metal locomotive tires.

During his almost three decades of management in the steel industry, he sought to derive the “laws of efficiency” governing its manufacture. He believed that workplace rules should be dictated from the manager’s office to the shop floor. Rather than base his expectations on precedent or on the customary practices of workers, he applied scientific methods to calculate how much productivity could be drawn from the available time, labor, and materials. Through “time-and-motion” studies, he charted how fast laborers could work and developed strategies for speeding up and expanding their output.

Taylor divided manufacturing tasks into skilled and unskilled jobs. For example, he kept skilled workers at their stations longer by giving the responsibility of sharpening tools and lubricating machines to less skilled workers. This angered skilled workers, who lost control and autonomy over their workspace and the break afforded by these less demanding tasks. Taylor tried to limit the control of foreman by subdividing their responsibilities among many workers and by developing printed instructions for each task. He also developed incentives for increasing output, such as giving a higher piece-rate to workers who met the daily manufacturing quota.

His strategies were controversial in his time; when he published his “Principles of Scientific Management” in 1911, labor leaders denounced his program, dubbed by many as “Taylorism,” as undemocratic and dehumanizing. When managers attempted to bring scientific management to workplaces, strikes could break out, as in the 1910 work stoppage at the federal arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Although Taylor died in 1915, Taylorism became an international phenomenon, entering assembly lines, hospitals, kitchens, schools, and offices across the world.