Super Cities №210— The Man Behind American Productivity

Brendan Hart

Before there was Tim Ferriss, there was Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Born in 1856, Mr. Taylor is less well known than his infamous devotees (Henry Ford, Vladimir Lenin) or the places his theory was taught (Harvard, Dartmouth, Cambridge).

However, Taylor's work – focused on how humans affected industrial productivity – transformed American business and, over time, how companies around the world operated.

His seminal book, The Principles of Scientific Management (PDF), published one hundred years ago, was recently named the most influential management book of the 20th century.

Taylor outlined four management principles to increase output dramatically:

  1. Replace working by "rule of thumb," or simple habit and common sense, and instead use the scientific method to study work and determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks.
  2. Rather than simply assign workers to just any job, match workers to their jobs based on capability and motivation, and train them to work at maximum efficiency.
  3. Monitor worker performance, and provide instructions and supervision to ensure that they're using the most efficient ways of working.
  4. Allocate the work between managers and workers so that the managers spend their time planning and training, allowing the workers to perform their tasks efficiently.

Taylor's principles are now standard best practices, but at the time, they provided a much-needed scientific approach to management, operations, and decision-making. Taylor was so influential to the way generations of organizations operated that Peter Drucker, himself described as “the founder of modern management," once claimed:

On Taylor's 'scientific management' rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do.

Taylor is not remembered like Ford or Rockefeller. He doesn't inspire modern titans like Sloan or Carnegie.

Yet Taylor's principles – efficiency, precision, and optimization – were essential to the growth of American industry. They remain foundational to the best run organizations today.

Just don't make them a way of life.

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