Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein – the lasting imprint of these 19th and 20th century minds on the modern world is without question. Less written about, but deserving of similar recognition, is Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915). That was the assessment of Simon Head, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and the featured speaker of the Deans’ Seminar Series held at Stevens Institute of Technology on September 24, 2015.
Head’s thought-provoking talk, “Taylor’s Three Centuries,” was the keynote speech of a two-day interdisciplinary conference (Taylor's World Conference) that examined the life and legacy of the Stevens alumnus whose landmark formula for improving and increasing industry efficiency – “The Principles of Scientific Management" – revolutionized work flows and processes in ways that could not have been imagined in Taylor’s lifetime.
In his opening remarks, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin considered Taylor, who earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1883, one of the university’s most influential graduates, alongside automotive pioneer Charles Stewart Mott; American industrialist Samuel P. Bush (also patriarch of the Bush political family); Eugene McDermott, co-founder of Texas Instruments; and renowned sculptor Alexander Calder, who created the art form called the mobile.
Head traced the historical development of scientific management, from its 19th and early 20th century roots in the setting of Taylor’s time, to its influence and evolution in manufacturing from the 1910s through the 1980s, and finally to its application in the current digital era.
Head began by describing Taylor as one of the great metallurgic engineers of his time who applied engineering principles to production processes during the Industrial Revolution. He set out to increase productivity by optimizing and simplifying jobs, breaking tasks down into small mechanical steps and focusing on how each person can do his or her specific series of steps best.
One vivid example of an application of Taylor’s scientific management principles can be seen at the factory floor of an auto plant. The breakdown of highly-skilled labor to its basic components is exemplified by the assembly line practice of moving the work from one worker to another to create a highly sophisticated product – a motor car. Under this scenario, a worker need not know how to make a car, just his part in the process of making a car. This “de-skilling” of labor began in the United States and reached its zenith in Japan in the 1980s with automakers such as Toyota, explained Head. The high performance cars produced by their Japanese counterparts pushed the American auto industry to wholly embrace a “top-down” approach that rewarded a tiny class of highly-paid engineers and managers who exerted high levels of managerial control over workers who were not required to exercise intuition and judgment, he says.
Despite the fierce competition posed by the Japanese car makers, Head argues that the complete de-skilling of the American auto industry could have been avoided. Pointing to the high-level skills and high incomes of German auto workers, Head attributed Germany’s strong manufacturing economy to government policies that invested heavily in comprehensive training systems that produce the skilled workers who maintain Germany’s competitive edge in manufacturing.
The legacy of “Taylorism” extends far beyond manufacturing, says Head. In warehouses run by Amazon and Walmart, workers are monitored by machines, and their work output is measured by performance optimization programs, he cites as examples. Taylor’s methods have been used by financial institutions to devastating effect, he adds. Traders and managers depend so heavily on algorithms that the abdication of personal responsibility has led to events like the subprime mortgage crisis.
Through this historical examination of Taylor in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Head posed critical questions about the darker consequences of such a sweeping application of Taylor’s scientific management principles and the impact it has had on middle class incomes and the human dignity of work.
It is this dark legacy, Head argued, that may explain Taylor’s absence from the pantheon of canonical figures such as Darwin, Freud and Einstein who have had the kind of impact Taylor has had over the past 100 years.
"Taylor is a fascinating figure because his legacy forces us to consider the social aspects of scientific and technological change, with questions such as: Who benefits from increased efficiencies? Who bears responsibility for the unintended consequences of technological change?" says Andrew Russell, director of the Program in Science & Technology Studies in the College of Arts & Letters at Stevens.
Additionally, Russell says that Head was the perfect person to push the Stevens community to appreciate and reconsider Taylor’s legacy.
“A leading authority on labor and technology in the digital age, Simon Head’s work brings a historical and humanistic sensibility to subjects such as the automation of health care, bookselling and education.”
Photo Caption: (left to right) Professor Lee Vinsel, Stevens Institute of Technology; Simon Head, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University; Professor Andrew Russell, Stevens Institute of Technology.