Posted by: Sheri | March 26, 2010

Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford’s “Model” Efficiency

Frederick Taylor’s notebook and comments about the efficiency of workers got me thinking about Henry Ford’s assembly line tactics.  It seems that Taylor’s thoughts appeared as the Ford company was already working to implement a new idea for creating an efficient labor system.  By 1913, the work of Charles Sorenson and other technical designers completed the five year long process for transforming the Ford factory into an assembly line and the first mass produced Model T’s drove off the assembly line. (click underlined terms for link to film footage of the assembly line).  Who knows if Ford had read Taylor’s essays, but some Ford’s company policies echoed Taylor’s thoughts about the relationship between labor and management.

1. Taylor wrote, “(the) work of the establishment is done with the smallest combined expenditure of human effort.”  Ford’s engineer, Sorenson, developed a strategy that encouraged the highest level of efficiency from every worker, regardless of ability, which sped up the production process.   Ford was able to reduce the price of his cars by about 30%, which greatly increased sales, while now able to produce more cars than ever.

2. Taylor wrote, “it is possible to give the workman what he most wants-high wages-and the employer what he wants-a low labor cost-for his manufactures.”  Ford applied this practice in 1914 with his stunning decision to nearly double the daily minimum working wage, a move that most likely was not popular with most management forces.

Now from this example of the “success” of Ford’s plan as correlated to Taylor’s thinking, let me turn to some issues I take with Taylor’s ideas.

1. Taylor seems to be saying that science, and by extension, a scientific management system can override the natural instincts of the working man to be lazy.  This sounds either like nascent psychology or Moreau-vian type assumptions about the superiority of science over nature.  (and we learned how well that plan worked for Dr. Moreau).

2. Taylor places a lot of confidence in scientific observation, data collection, analysis, and hypothesis for identifying potential time and energy wasting methods.  Yes, by looking at a problem from a scientific method, you theoretically can remove the “rule-of-thumb” type of errors through establishing some sort of automated effort, but does this strategy doesn’t account for the variety of human differences in skill, motivation, alertness, fatigue, or interest in the job.  What method might work for one particular worker can only be applied to the masses once its function is stripped down to the most basic components to produce an effective motion or action that can be performed by a generalized work force.  Specialization of particular tasks is not a new concept (remember the work of Andrew Ure in his 1835 “Philosophy of Manufacturers”?).  While Ure emphasized combining components to create an organized work force with better social aspects for workers, Taylor seems to focus solely on the profit margin which, in his opinion, comes from less laziness (“soldiering”?) and more efficient work as a happy social contract between labor and management.

3. Taylor asserts that these methods of scientific inquiry can determine the best way to eliminate waste, but his ideas are heavily tainted by class elitism.  The thinkers and management are needed to watch and observe and demand the most physical exertion from the work force with only the pie-crust promise of returned rewards for labor. (pie-crust promise, according to Mary Poppins, is one easily made, easily broken).

If I’m the worker, and I see the guy next to me loafing, yet receiving the same pay as me and I’m really ramping up my production, what is the incentive for me to work faster?  Taylor identifies this as a key component of the current “lazy” work force.  But I think he misses the key psychological aspect here.  Workers have human emotions, human instincts.  The truly successful business managers figure out a way to satisfy those instincts through teamwork, empowerment, a sense of community, promotion through merit, etc. concepts that are more “modern” (and more inclusive of human as well as scientific factors) than the purely scientific strategies of Taylor.

4. Taylor seems to be reacting to the shifting tides in labor / management relations.  He is definitely anti-labor rights and holds the bias founded on the old Protestant work ethic – if you work hard you will get ahead OR the less than Christian attitude: if you are poor it is because you don’t work hard enough.

5. Taylor places a firm belief in the curative powers of “modern” science.  He hopes to rid the world of industry of sloth and greed by using science to triumph over the less than agreeable instincts of human nature through careful study of work habits and then alterations in those habits to create a more beneficial use of time to create the greatest quantity in the least time.  He foretells of a workplace where all will work in harmony when both labor and management agree to follow the scientifically derived plans for maximum efficient use of resources and labor.  That workers will cheerfully utilize muscle strength proportionately to mental strength of the task management engineers.

6. Problems I see with this thinking is that he focuses most on getting workers to want to work – a focus on quantity rather than quality or motivation theories – without taking that logic to the next step to predict the corollary nature of supply and demand.  Maybe he tackles these issues in his follow-up essays?

I give Taylor points for predicting the future of innovative scientific studies such as time management and task efficiency studies – a big business for those companies willing to pay for the services and now a virtually indispensable component of production efficiency.  But I think he misreads the emerging desires for worker’s rights by assuming that the boss will know how much production each worker is capable of (particularly if the boss has never had to perform the work).  I’m reminded of the admonition to not judge a person until you have walked a mile in his shoes.  I’m sure that sentiment was not very popular among management during this time!

Taylor has envisioned the future of assembly-line production and labor research in the workplace in a time when the rights of management are being accosted by the hopes of the labor force.  Soon enough the demands to account for the human aspect of labor will affect business and business practices, but for the moment, the faith placed in the ability of science to solve labor issues probably is comforting to the emerging management class.



  1. One of the greatest scientists to have ever lived was henry ford. He did so much for us, its a wonderful thing that ford family cars is still doing so great.

  2. My roommate works for Booze Allen Hamilton. They gave him a book when he started there about the history of the firm. Of course he never bothered to read it, but I’ve been flipping through it. Edwin Booze founded the company in 1916 after majoring in psychology. Booze’s great insight was to vehemently oppose Taylorism. Where Taylor saw workers as interchangeable, Booze saw them as idiosyncratic psyches that needed to be structured in a unique way to maximize their efficiency.

    • What a great way to explain things: “idiosyncratic psyches that needed to be structured in a unique way to maximize their efficiency” – this combines Taylor with Freud and follows the old adage of “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar”.

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