Frederick Taylor was a man of his time not a whipping boy for ours

Everybody likes a pantomime villain, and for many commentators on management and office design, they don’t come more dastardly than Frederick W. Taylor. Not only do pictures of him betray him as wealthy, white and starched, his ideas and the language in which they are couched are totally out of step with the way we think now. So for anybody writing about enlightened contemporary management practices, it’s no wonder that it is almost customary to start with a rejection of Taylorism in general and his theory of scientific management in particular. The gist of Taylorism laid out in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management is that work should be analysed to establish the most efficient way of doing it, the right person to do that work must be chosen and managers are there to make sure that it all goes to plan. As far as workers are concerned, what we now think of as Taylorism is best (and partly unfairly) summed up as:‘You’re not paid to think. Shut up and do your job.’

Scientific management was the forerunner of modern time and motion study, business process re-engineering and heavily influenced the ‘just-in-time manufacturing methods beloved of the Japanese during their manufacturing heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. It may also have influenced Adolf Eichmann, another man obsessed with efficiency and one with whom nobody would wish to be associated.

Underlying Taylor’s ideas was a desire to do away with shirking, one of the notions that underpins the popularity of the open plan. He had a life-long obsession with efficiency and dogmatically believed that groups of people would develop peer structures that would encourage ‘natural laziness’ so he frequently discouraged workers operating in teams of more than four. He also had very fixed ideas about what he meant by the right people for jobs. ‘One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron,’ he wrote, ‘is that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make up the ox than any other type.’

It is not really surprising that this kind of language earned him his demonised status in the modern world. It didn’t go down particularly well at the time, with workers in his steel works breaking machines in an attempt to show their disgust at the new methods. It took three years of persistence (and fines) to bend them to his will.

His ideas continue to strike a discordant, even outrageous note when heard alongside contemporary corporate speak with its talk of knowledge workers, motivation, empowerment, work-life balance, homeworking, chill-out zones, portfolio careers and dress down days.

Yet there are a number of reasons why it is about time we reassessed both the man and his work. Firstly, we should put his work into the context of his times. Harsh though it may sound to us now, he was one of the first people to take an interest in the analysis of work and management. As guru’s guru Peter Drucker points out ‘scientific management was one of the great liberating, pioneering insights.’

The second is that he may also be the victim of the way we now view his era. We reject his ideas as outmoded yet companies will happily fork out thousands of pounds for their executives to go mystic-eyed on courses exploring how the musings of Sun Tzu are applicable to modern business.

Of course it doesn’t help if you’re a wealthy, middle class Victorian Quaker from Philadelphia with Winslow as your middle name, as opposed to a Chinese General who died 2,500 years ago saying similar things. Nor does it help that you’re talking about things that you learned in a steel factory and paper mill as opposed to a battlefield when we know businesspeople like to see themselves bathed in a martial glow. That is why Sun Tzu can be rehabilitated after saying about his soldiers ‘if you are so nice to them that you cannot employ them, so kind to them that you cannot command them, so casual with them that you cannot establish order, they are like spoiled children, useless’ and Frederick Taylor can’t make a similar point without invoking outrage.

Finally, we need also remember that we also have a slightly warped idea of what Taylorism is. There is some truth in the principle we highlighted earlier, but he also advocated the use of suggestion schemes and rewards programmes. He has been credited with kick-starting a mental revolution in the way that managers in particular related to their work and their colleagues. He was also a pioneer in the use of quality standards, speaking of them in a way that was prescient of ISO9000 standards.

He was a remarkable man throughout his life. He passed his entrance exam to Harvard but could not take his place due to poor eyesight. So he did it the hard way, starting as an unskilled worker in a steel mill and working his way up. He won the US tennis doubles championship in 1881. He died a wealthy man with dozens of patents to his name including a process used worldwide for tempering steel and in his later years as he developed a passion for golf, one for watering putting greens from below the surface.

Not the pantomime villain we’re used to thinking about then but a remarkable man. His ideas may not be right for us, but that doesn’t make his influence during his own lifetime any less valid. A man of his time, not a whipping boy for ours.