Who was Frederick Winslow Taylor and why is he important?

TaylorAlthough he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and passed the Harvard entrance examination with honors, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) decided to be a machinist and worked his way up the factory floor to become foreman while taking mechanical engineering courses at night. In 1898, he became a consultant to major manufacturing companies. His ideas were highly unorthodox and very successful.

For example, when retained by Bethlehem Iron Company to help solve its severe problems with productivity, he eliminated hourly wages and assigned a specific pay rate to each segment of work for which an employee was responsible. In effect, the company paid for results.

Taylor’s ideal worker was simply an unskilled cog in the larger machine, trained to do just one task and rewarded when he completed it optimally. According to Taylor, “it is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that his faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.” Principles of Scientific Management (published in 1911) is probably his best-known book.

Taylor’s management theories and tools were widely adopted well into the 20th century. They certainly played a role during two World Wars — both in the factories and on the battlefield — but, with the arrival of “a new world of work” in the 1950s, when mental effort was more highly valued than physical labor, “Taylorism” lost its influence and then its credibility.

Nonetheless, for more than 60 years, no business thinker had a greater impact than did Frederick Winslow Taylor.

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