Frederick Winslow Taylor – Celebrated and relived, honoured and misunderstood
In Europe, the blueprint of the British businessmen for modern management goes almost entirely unnoticed. At the end of the 19th century, however, a group of American engineers seize the opportunity, the most eager of them being Frederick Winslow Taylor. He knows the working life from every angle: After his apprenticeship as a model carpenter and beginning as a mechanical engineer at Midvale Steel Company, he works his way up from handyman to foreman. Taylor receives a degree in mechanical engineering. He leaves the business in 1890 as chief engineer.
Taylor is fascinated early on by the possibilities of more efficient work processes. By the time he takes over as director of a paper factory in 1890, he has already drawn up studies in time and movement and developed performance guidelines for lathe operators. Afterwards Taylor serves as advisor for the Bethlehem Steel Company until 1901. The company employs more than 80,000 people. Starting in 1901, Taylor dedicates himself mainly to researching work organization. His findings appear in 1903 under the title “Shop Management”.
Taylor formulates his ideas in detail in his main work, “The Principles of Scientific Management”. Written in 1911, his ideas are just as effective today.
In order to work efficiently, according to Taylor’s writings, the job tasks must be precisely determined, the most effective work method defined, and the necessary time allowed. Here Taylor had recognized the importance of optimized work methods and the necessity of time studies. To the latter Taylor dedicates special attention: A multitude of measurements should provide objective production times for accurately defined work processes. Taylor considers this required time to be a graduator for a worker’s performance. He finds the accepted performance guidelines to be insufficient and the wages too high. He then suggests a system which only rewards the actual output of the worker.
The unions are up in arms. A fierce conflict erupts around “Taylorism“, as his ideas are called. It culminates in a hearing before the special committee of the House of Representatives. Here the business management practices of Taylor – who has since been named president of the Association of Engineers – are interpreted according to political preferences, a fact no less true of today. Some hold him responsible for reducing work to a few movements, for pre-decided tasks, for exploitation and mass unemployment through the effects of rationalization. Others point out Taylor’s efforts for a fair, performance-dependent wage and his appeals to workers and company owners to cooperate in the interest of a healthy business.
And Taylor himself? He suggests to pass on the profits reaped by increased productivity to the workers through their wages. A suggestion which in turn was met by many businesses with little approval.
However you judge Talor’s work, two things remain indisputable: The first is his importance as an inventor to whom is attributed the manufacturing of inexpensive high-speed steel and the development of many machines and tools. The second is the honor he is due as the first to have developed a comprehensive theory of business science. When Frederick Winslow Taylor dies in 1915 of complications from a severe cold, he is rightly called “the father of scientific business management“.
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Harald Ebner, Head of Disk Brakes Unit, Knorr-Bremse Systeme für Nutzfahrzeuge GmbH, Aldersbach
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