Frederick Taylor, Early Century Management Consultant


The American ideal of corporate efficiency took form in the early 20th century, seeded by reform-minded progressives seeking to improve the lot of the middle classes and their employers. As corporations consolidated at the end of the 19th century, progressives encouraged the spread of professional management to supersede the style that had defined the Robber Baron age.

As corporations pursued national markets, they needed experts in production, distribution and labor. Businesses were now to complex for generalists to run. This need for such expertise led to the advent of the management consultant. The most highly regarded consultant to arise out of this era is Frederick Winslow Taylor. Frederick Taylor's name was synonymous with "scientific management," a revolutionary movement that proposed the reduction of waste through the careful study of work. Peter Drucker has ranked Taylor, along with Darwin and Freud, as one of the seminal thinkers of modern times.

Born in 1856 into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Taylor disappointed his parents by working in a metal products factory, first as a machinist and next as a foreman. Shocked at the factory's inefficiency, and the practice of its skilled workers of purposely working slowly, Taylor proposed solutions that he believed would solve both problems. By studying the time it took each worker to complete a step, and by rearranging equipment, Taylor believed he could discover what an average worker could produce in optimum conditions. The promise of higher wages, he figured, would create added incentive for workers to exceed this "average" level. Taylor's time-and-motion studies offered a path away from the industrial wars of a century ago. Now what was needed was a way to apportion the wealth created by manufacturing enterprises. Taylor's answer sidestepped the class struggle and interest-group politics.

Generally creating enemies wherever he worked, and willing to bend the facts to suit his theories, Taylor's methods paid off, when on the eve of World War I, "Taylorism" became the first big management fad. An extreme version of Taylor's mind-set found its way into the operation of Nazi death camps and communist totalitarianism. The Taylor method prescribed a clockwork world of tasks timed to the hundredth of a minute, of standardized factories, machines, women and men. Naturally, ordinary workers resented having to work faster then they thought was healthy or fair.

It came to be revealed, that in case after case, Taylor and his adherents didn't actually use their time studies as the sole basis for setting normative output. Acknowledging that workers could not sustain peak level performances all day long, they used a margin of error or fudge factor of as much as a third to set a more realistic level. This of course, struck at the credibility that Taylor's system was based on scientific laws.

Taylor passed on in the year 1915.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, June 13, 1997 pg. A17

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