Books on Skills: The Principles of Scientific Management, F W Taylor (1911)

If it was Adam Smith’s pin factory in the Wealth of Nations (1776) that first highlighted skills specialisation it was F W Taylor who built this into a science with this book written in 1911. It started in Bethlehem; at the Steelworks.

Taylor had started his working career at Mid Vale Steelworks but, the principles would take real shape at the Bethlehem Steelworks, Philadelphia where he started work in 1898 to solve a serious capacity problem. in 1898. Over time, he observed and codified the scientific approach to shovelling; bricklaying; the inspection of bearings and the use of slide rules in a machine shop. This was the birth of time and motion studies; which had a major impact on American and then Soviet industry and, at the Steelworks, laid the foundations for high volume mass production.

Taylor saw productivity in messianic terms. Quoting Roosevelt, then President of the USA, “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency”. Taylor emphasised the need for skills training rather than finding the “right man,” stating “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first,” and the first goal of all good systems should be developing first-class men.” Taylor listed three goals: (1). To demonstrate the great loss to the economy caused by inefficiency – he called the act of inefficiency “soldiering” (2). To convince people that the remedy was scientific management rather than looking for extraordinary performers and (3). To prove that the best management is true science, resting on clearly defined laws, rules and principles – and this meant the end for the old “rule of thumb” methods.

Taylor’s influence was significant. Slide rules developed fast as a means to measure accurately in the machine shops; gantt charts were developed to track schedules and, translations of Taylors work into French; German and Russian had a major impact on the war effort in World War 1.

In 1913 Lenin had been a major critic of Taylor’s principles but, by 1918 his views changed dramatically; seeing the development of the principles in the Soviet Union as fundamental to the success of the Revolution. The Soviets applied many of the principles in their drive to electrify and modernise the Soviet Union. One case study, the movement of pig iron, used the example of the “ox-like” worker Schmidt and this was the prototype for the Soviet Stakanovite movement – Stakhanov being the miner who beat the shift quota by a factor of 14. On the 31 August 1935, he mined a total of 102 tonnes of coal in 5 hours and 45 minutes. On 19th September, Stakhanov set a new record with 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift. Nonethless, this had more to do with propaganda posters than to scientific rigour and the excesses of the system soon gave rise to negative characterisation such as in Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We (1921).

Under Stalin, the approach led to some violent excesses. At one stage the Commisar for Railways was measured on the weight of cargo per rail truck. The net result was that the infrastructure around Moscow and the industrial heartland began to creek under the strain. The Commisar was shot. Then, the measurement – key performance indicator – shifted to kilometres moved. Soon enough rolling stock was being lost as lengthy journeys into obscure places became the favoured method of meeting the quotas. Again, the Commisar met his fate.

Scientific management made a major contribution to the understanding of work patterns but, productivity alone is not enough. There need to be a qualitative as well as a quantitative dimension. This would be provided by Deming and Juran at a later stage.

 

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