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THE MAN WHO CHANGED WORK FOREVER

FORTUNE
Monday, July 21, 1997
By Alan Farnham

The average worker's deep, abiding affection for efficiency experts has never been better expressed than in Rivethead, a 1991 memoir by former GM assembly-line worker Ben Hamper. 'Weasels,' Hamper called them: 'ant-heads in smocks and bifocals,' 'techno-cretins' whose annual state-of-the-factory presentations were 'one long lullaby of foreign terminology, slides, numerology, and assorted high-tech masturbation.' Perhaps the one best estimation, then, of Frederick Taylor's impact is to say that without him we would have no ant-heads and no Hampers. He simultaneously created scientific management and labor's revulsion from it.

When Taylor died in 1915, his fame was universal. Lenin advocated his productivity-promoting notions. Peter Drucker calls Taylorism 'the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since The Federalist Papers.' Wasn't Henry Ford a bigger deal? No, says Drucker. The assembly line was just one logical extension of scientific management.

Today his name is little known except to academics. That it rings even a faint bell in average minds is thanks to a Hollywood confection, Cheaper by the Dozen, in which Clifton Webb plays an efficiency expert so bent on having every task done right that he times--with a stopwatch--how long it takes his children to rush into his arms when he returns from business trips. He's perpetually petulant: Can't the little buggers shave a second or two off their last best kissing time? The real-life inspiration for the character was one of Taylor's many disciples.

That Taylor should be remembered through Cheaper by the Dozen is as if Christ were to be remembered for having inspired Monty Python's Life of Brian. Taylor's influence is omnipresent: It's his ideas that determine how many burgers McDonald's expects its flippers to flip or how many callers the phone company expects its operators to assist.

So who was he? And what exactly was his -ism? The answers can be found in Robert Kanigel's authoritative, elegantly written biography, The One Best Way.

Taylor was born into a well-to-do Philadelphia family in 1856. From his boyhood on, he sought to improve everything he touched. Other kids viewed him as a crank, since he seemed more interested in laying out the ball field correctly than in playing ball. As an adult he designed an 'improved' golf club (a putter with two handles that looked like a divining rod) and a spoonlike tennis racket. (He won the U.S. Open for doubles in 1881.)

Such eccentricities, however, were only the domestic, semi-endearing expressions of his mania. In 1874 he turned his attention to the workplace. Determined to be an engineer, he obtained a job as an apprentice in a machine shop, where he soon observed that each workman was, in effect, an artist: Each did his job his own way.

When Taylor rose to foreman, he asked himself how much work a man ought to be able to do if he approached his job the right way. No matter what the task--shoveling dirt or hoisting iron bars--Taylor broke it down into its smallest constituent movements, timing each one with a stopwatch. After teasing a job apart, he reassembled it, reducing not only the number of motions but also effort and the risk of error. Taylor called his analysis 'time-study.'

He devised as well a differential pay scale, since one of his maxims was that no man would do an extraordinary day's work for an ordinary day's pay. Workers willing to follow Taylor's instruction found that their productivity soared. They found, too, that they could double or even triple their old pay. The joker was, of course, that their jobs weren't really theirs anymore. They were Taylor's. There was but one way to work now: the one best way.

As the pace of work accelerated, some workers rebelled (despite the higher pay), and complaints against Taylor by organized labor landed him in front of a Senate investigatory hearing shortly before his death. He departed life under a cloud--one that shadows him to this day. Labor's antipathy, in fact, is one reason he isn't better known: You tend not to memorialize the guy who did your root canal. 

From the Jul. 21, 1997 Issue
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