Facing a busy schedule one February day in 1909, Henry Bourne Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Co. in Detroit, went to the directors’ room for a 10:30 a.m. meeting with an efficiency expert. Joy planned to quickly excuse himself, to attend to other matters. But he underestimated Frederick Winslow Taylor’s magnificence and stayed until the presentation ended just before 3 p.m.
Taylor, visiting from Philadelphia, made his reputation by undertaking “time-and-motion” studies of manufacturing tasks, breaking down the individual actions. As a consultant, he applied ideas for efficiency to practically every pursuit. He had already toured the Packard factory with his host, manufacturing boss F.F. Beall, delving into various processes. Adopting Taylor’s principles was a given because of “the great merit and originality of his methods above any others that we know of,” Beall wrote.
The pursuit of efficiency had taken over American society. The military, universities, and even churches craved it. A Minneapolis preacher, W.R. Harshaw, recommended Taylor’s classic, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” for every minister’s library. “The church has wisely taken up this ‘efficiency’ idea and is pushing it to the front as never before,” Harshaw wrote.
Coming from a prosperous Quaker family, Taylor spurned admission to Harvard University and instead went into industry, acquiring an engineering degree through correspondence courses. After innovations in steel-cutting made him independently wealthy, he devoted himself to management consulting. He was introduced to Detroit by addressing the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1895, proposing a piece-rate system as a partial solution to an ongoing labor problem. The advantage, he said, was that goods were produced more cheaply while at the same time workmen earned more.
In 1900, Taylor invested in a company that made molding machines and insisted on implementing his management system. “We were only too glad to do this without having any conception of what it was,” an executive said. His first biographer wrote that Taylor’s associates had to “make allowances for the fact that in certain things he was an extremist, not to say a bit of a crank.”
The management ideas translated even to Taylor’s professional organization. Being elected president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1906 fed his ego. “Four days after the election I was given a dinner,” he said. “My head and chest suddenly contracted when I was told I had been elected because the society needed reorganizing, and it was believed that I was the man to do it.”
Taylor imparted his ideas at regular sessions in his home. Audiences of engineers, industrial and university executives, military officers, bureaucrats, and editors gathered to listen while his cat, Putmut, rested on the great man’s shoulder.
Beyond Packard, the whole auto industry adopted Taylor’s precepts, which Henry Ford’s biographer, Robert Lacey, called “the stopwatch-and-clipboard approach to factory life.” Ford Motor Co. extended scientific management to its logical extreme by mechanizing wherever possible.
While Taylorism increased productivity and reduced costs, cries of inhumanity arose. Yet he believed his principles to be “applicable to all kinds of human activities, from our simplest individual acts to the work of our great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation.”
Another noted management consultant, Peter Drucker, called Taylorism “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.” Keeping life and work well-balanced, Taylor knocked off every day at 4 p.m. in order to play golf or tennis, and was first-rate at both. But the clock ran out for him early: He had just turned 59 years old when he died of pneumonia.