Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The birth of scientific management

I've had this in the queue for a while -- management gurus figure in a lot of our ongoing threads --but news of the emergence of Teach For India and similar organizations have recently have made the topic more topical. Seeing the same model tried in different countries has brought into high relief some things that were always implicit in the story such as the role of Taylorism in TFA and in the larger reform movement, particularly through the involvement of McKinsey and Company (more on that soon).

Arguably the leading debunker of scientific management is Matthew Stewart. Here's his account of how Taylor got started.
Management theory came to life in 1899 with a simple question: “How many tons of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a rail car in the course of a working day?” The man behind this question was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the author of The Principles of Scientific Management and, by most accounts, the founding father of the whole management business.

Taylor was forty-three years old and on contract with the Bethlehem Steel Company when the pig iron question hit him. Staring out over an industrial yard that covered several square miles of the Pennsylvania landscape, he watched as laborers loaded ninety-two-pound bars onto rail cars. There were 80,000 tons’ worth of iron bars, which were to be carted off as fast as possible to meet new demand sparked by the Spanish-American War. Taylor narrowed his eyes: there was waste there, he was certain. After hastily reviewing the books at company headquarters, he estimated that the men were currently loading iron at the rate of twelve and a half tons per man per day.

Taylor stormed down to the yard with his assistants (“college men,” he called them) and rounded up a group of top-notch lifters (“first-class men”), who in this case happened to be ten “large, powerful Hungarians.” He offered to double the workers’ wages in exchange for their participation in an experiment. The Hungarians, eager to impress their apparent benefactor, put on a spirited show. Huffing up and down the rail car ramps, they loaded sixteen and a half tons in something under fourteen minutes. Taylor did the math: over a ten-hour day, it worked out to seventy-five tons per day per man. Naturally, he had to allow time for bathroom breaks, lunch, and rest periods, so he adjusted the figure approximately 40 percent downward. Henceforth, each laborer in the yard was assigned to load forty-seven and a half pig tons per day, with bonus pay for reaching the target and penalties for failing.

When the Hungarians realized that they were being asked to quadruple their previous daily workload, they howled and refused to work. So Taylor found a “high-priced man,” a lean Pennsylvania Dutchman whose intelligence he compared to that of an ox. Lured by the promise of a 60 percent increase in wages, from $1.15 to a whopping $1.85 a day, Taylor’s high-priced man loaded forty-five and three-quarters tons over the course of a grueling day—close enough, in Taylor’s mind, to count as the first victory for the methods of modern management.


Yet even as Taylor’s idea of management began to catch on, a number of flaws in his approach were evident. The first thing many observers noted about scientific management was that there was almost no science to it. The most significant variable in Taylor’s pig iron calculation was the 40 percent “adjustment” he made in extrapolating from a fourteen-minute sample to a full workday. Why time a bunch of Hungarians down to the second if you’re going to daub the results with such a great blob of fudge? When he was grilled before Congress on the matter, Taylor casually mentioned that in other experiments these “adjustments” ranged from 20 percent to 225 percent. He defended these unsightly “wags” (wild-ass guesses, in M.B.A.-speak) as the product of his “judgment” and “experience”—but, of course, the whole point of scientific management was to eliminate the reliance on such inscrutable variables.

One of the distinguishing features of anything that aspires to the name of science is the reproducibility of experimental results. Yet Taylor never published the data on which his pig iron or other conclusions were based. When Carl Barth, one of his devotees, took over the work at Bethlehem Steel, he found Taylor’s data to be unusable. Another, even more fundamental feature of science—here I invoke the ghost of Karl Popper—is that it must produce falsifiable propositions. Insofar as Taylor limited his concern to prosaic activities such as lifting bars onto rail cars, he did produce propositions that were falsifiable—and, indeed, were often falsified. But whenever he raised his sights to management in general, he seemed capable only of soaring platitudes. At the end of the day his “method” amounted to a set of exhortations: Think harder! Work smarter! Buy a stopwatch!

The trouble with such claims isn’t that they are all wrong. It’s that they are too true. When a congressman asked him if his methods were open to misuse, Taylor replied, No. If management has the right state of mind, his methods will always lead to the correct result. Unfortunately, Taylor was right about that. Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies).

Curiously, Taylor and his college men often appeared to float free from the kind of accountability that they demanded from everybody else. Others might have been asked, for example: Did Bethlehem’s profits increase as a result of their work? Taylor, however, rarely addressed the question head-on. With good reason. Bethlehem fired him in 1901 and threw out his various systems. Yet this evident vacuum of concrete results did not stop Taylor from repeating his parables as he preached the doctrine of efficiency to countless audiences across the country.


That Taylorism and its modern variants are often just a way of putting labor in its place need hardly be stated: from the Hungarians’ point of view, the pig iron experiment was an infuriatingly obtuse way of demanding more work for less pay. That management theory represents a covert assault on capital, however, is equally true. (The Soviet five-year planning process took its inspiration directly from one of Taylor’s more ardent followers, the engineer H. L. Gantt.) Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.

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