Frederick Winslow Taylor virtually created some aspects of modern management. His influence was so powerful and so pervasive, that many things we now take for granted were concepts that he pioneered and if you hear about Taylor at all, it’s usually with a strong negative judgpment.
Taylor, who did some of the very first efficiency studies, is vilified as the person who tried to turn people into machines. He’s seen as the progenitor of the efficiency studies. The first of those assumptions is partially true, and the second is certainly true that needs to be set in context..
What author Robert Kanigel has done is clean up the facts and set Taylor in context.
He does this with an excellent history/biography. We learn that Taylor, who came from a wealthy background, also spent time working in machine shops. We find him learning as much from that process as from formal education; and claiming at times that the practical experience of working in a shop is necessary to understand industry – or at least industry as it was developing when he did his studies.
That time was the late 19th and early 20th Century. Even though the Industrial Revolution had been going on for awhile, factories were still developing into what we know them as today. Taylor showed how individual workers could be more efficient and effective. This was great for production, but not always popular with the workers he studied.
Taylor’s studies gave rise to what was called “scientific management” and laid the groundwork for later “efficiency experts” like the Gilbreaths of “Cheaper by the Dozen” fame. His legacy is both positive and negative.
Part of his positive legacy is that Taylor demonstrated that you could actually study the way work was done and make improvements in the process. That’s a powerful insight and like most powerful insights, it can be used for good or ill.
One of Taylor’s famous studies, for example, tried to determine the most efficient way to shovel coal into steel mill furnaces. Taylor found that the mill could make great improvements in efficiency by changing things like the location of the pile of coal, the design of the shovel, and by allowing the shovellers to take periodic rest breaks.
Lots of folks who owned factories loved things like this. They got the shovels. The located the pile of coal where Taylor suggested. But they often left out things the didn’t like, such as those periodic rest breaks.
What Taylor gave the world were powerful methods of analysis that can make factories and shops and offices more effective. In that sense, he would be the grandparent of techniques like operations research, statistical quality control and kaizen.
But, like the rest of us, Taylor was a product of his times, of his breeding, and of his experience. Like the rest of us, he had human flaws. The strength of this book is that it gives you a look at the whole picture.
You get to see just how remarkable Taylor’s insights were, and how his life and experience shaped those insights. You get to see how others took what he had to say and used it both for good and for ill. And you get that all in a well-written biography that will hold your attention.
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