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Book Review

The One Best Way

Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

Robert Kanigel, Viking ($34.95)

  Fred Nickols 2012


Note:  This review appeared in the Journal of Management Consulting.

Fred Taylor’s life and work have finally received fair treatment. Robert Kanigel’s study of Taylor and scientific management is balanced and thorough. Taylor deserves some of the criticism that is regularly leveled against him, but as much or more of it is unjust. We in management also owe Taylor a great debt for having laid the much of the foundation of our profession. Kanigel makes clear the form and substance of Taylor’s legacy, its curses and its blessings.

Fad-addicted managers and executives aren’t likely to read Kanigel’s book. The text proper runs well over 500 pages. Yet, for all its size, it is an easy read. Kanigel’s style is simple and direct; no reading between the lines is required.

Consultants who peddle the latest fads will be making a mistake if they don’t read it. It shows clearly the origins and roots of workplace phenomena such as reengineering and total quality management. It shows, also, that what Deming and Juran carried to Japan after World War II, was in great part so warmly received there because Taylorism was already well ensconced.

The tale Kanigel tells is of a man in the grip of his own vision and even rhetoric. Taylor, a son of privilege, was initially, perhaps, not much more than curious. His experiments were aimed at determining (scientifically, of course), how much work a “first-class man” could perform. Only later did he portray himself as bent on righting the many wrongs of the workplace. In Taylor’s scheme of things, workers would receive extraordinary increases in wages in return for extraordinary increases in output. Unit costs, of course, would decrease significantly, making possible reduced prices and increased profits. It was a win-win-win: higher wages, higher profits, and lower prices.

Time study, motion study, standardized tools and materials, methods simplification, careful selection and training, rigorous measurement, endless and expensive experiments, even benchmarking (although it wasn’t called that back then), all these and more mark what came to be known as “scientific management” or “Taylorism,” and yet, Taylor would decry these as not being the “essence” of scientific management. Instead, he claimed, the true mark of scientific management was a “complete mental revolution” on the part of management and the workers. This revolution called for “hearty cooperation” among other things, by which Taylor meant collaboration between management and the workers in building a larger surplus instead of quarreling over how to divide the existing profit pie.

Taylor’s scheme was rational enough; indeed, that might have been its fatal flaw; it was too rational. There was no place in it for workers as human beings. It would be going too far to say that, in Taylor’s mind, the worker was a mere automaton, but it is not an overstatement to say that Taylor saw the worker as but one element in a work and work control system, and that the worker was to do the work and that the management was to exercise control. For Taylor, the relationship between the worker and the company was a straightforward economic transaction: pay in return for work performed. Factors such as meaning, a sense of identity, or empowerment (what Tom Peters, 75 years after Taylor’s death, called “a modicum of control over one’s destiny”) never entered Taylor’s thinking. He could not have timed or observed these. Moreover, they were not concerns in his time or milieu. All his life, but in later years especially, he was to be puzzled and perplexed by what Douglas McGregor would much later call “the human side of enterprise.”

Kanigel tells Taylor’s story with remarkable evenhandedness. Fred Taylor’s foibles and faults are there to see, but not in an overly harsh way. Taylor’s many strengths are also plain to see, but not in the same aggrandizing way that marks Frank Copley’s authorized (and sanitized) 1923 biography.

Students of Taylor, scientific management, and the study of work will find it all there: Taylor’s Quaker heritage, Philips Exeter, eye strain, Taylor’s apprenticeship, Midvale, Bethlehem Steel, Schmidt, high-speed steel, the giant steam hammer, the metal cutting experiments, the testimony before Congress, William Sellers, Carl Barth, Henry Gantt, and Joseph Wharton. Above all else, there is Frederick Winslow Taylor, “the father of scientific management.”

Kanigel keeps Taylor center stage throughout the book, as befits the high-drama actor Kanigel makes Taylor out to be. Whether as a boy touring Europe with his parents, a young man working as a machinist’s apprentice, the obviously full-of-himself management consultant, or as the fiery advocate of what came to be known as scientific management, Taylor is always before the reader’s eyes. Like him or not, Frederick Winslow Taylor is deserving of respect, and Kanigel gives him his due.

Note:  Many people have heard of Taylor but have never seen a picture of him.  Here's a link to a picture of Taylor on this site.


Hardcopy $34.95                                       Paperback $17.95

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