This book provides a biography of one of the most influential people of the past (bit over a) century. It’s a fascinating read, beautifully written, based on extensive research, often leaning on first hand sources like personal letters. Through this, Kanigel manages to give the reader insight in backgrounds (personal and social), thoughts and ideas. This includes developments, critique and reflections (e.g. on the not-so-scientific sides of scientific management). And you may be surprised on several moments. One of mine was the realisation of how much actually technical work Taylor did (on new tool steel, cutting speeds and variable of the process) as a basis for his greater system. This was a technical breakthrough that more or less necessitated his management processes.

I am not doing a summary, but here are just some excerpts that spoke to me at first reading.

About Taylor’s immense influence. Whether you want it or not - almost everyone these days (or post-Taylor, for that matter) is influenced by his legacy:

“Taylor’s thinking, then, so permeates the soil of modern life we no longer realize it’s there. It has become, as Edward Eyre Hunt, an aide to future President Herbert Hoover, could grandly declaim in 1924, ‘part of our moral inheritance’”. (p.7)

It wasn’t all his genius insight:

“Taylor was not a profoundly original thinker, if by that we mean someone who creates something new where nothing had been before. Though some of his disciples liked to picture him that way, he was no genius in the way Einstein or Picasso were. Rather, he took fragments of thought and practice drifting through the nineteenth century and directed them down one tight channel, focused them, packaged them, sold them as a single idea - and projected it into the twentieth century.” (p.19)

Later in the book (e.g. p.217) we read several examples to support this assessment: Adam Smith dad studied the division of labour a century before, Charles Babbage had recorded factory operations, cost and quantities in 1832, and Auguste Comte is mentioned with his mid-1800s notion that human activity might be captured by science just as natural phenomena had been captured before.

About ‘science’:

“As boy and man, Fred Taylor was genuinely moved by matters scientific and technical. They were not the only things that moved him and perhaps not even the chief ones. And later, he and his supporters would exaggerate the extent to which his system, scientific management, was truly ‘scientific’. Still, it is indisputable that numbers, facts, rules, and things occupied a large part of his mental universe.” (p.103-104)

And the perception of science as the solution for anything:

“In the years before Taylor delivered his paper, the idea that science could cure the ills afflicting humankind, and that progress could rein unchecked and bountiful, had become an article of faith among many engineers.” (p.278)

However, was it really science?

“At the height of the efficiency craze, a Boston consulting engineer, A. Hamilton Church, asked in an American Machinist article, “Has ‘Scientific Management’ Science?” His answer was no. Apart from certain useful ‘mechanisms’, presumably time study, it had ‘nothing tangible behind it’. Taylor’s ‘Shop Management’ struck him as scientifically vague.” (p.508)

About choosing a language that connects to your audience (even though throughout the book it becomes clear that Taylor often was very confronting):

“To hear Copley explain it, Taylor sought ‘whatever advantage there might be in as nearly as possible speaking the language of those with whom he dealt’.” (p.143)

Taylor himself is quoted in a paternalistic approach to dealing with workmen - like caring for children:

“If one hopes to get into close and friendly touch with workmen, it is above all desirable that they should be talked to on their own level by those who are over them.” (p.145)

Taylor quoted from a 1906 speech on worker initiative:

“In our scheme, we do not ask for the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.” (p.169)

About responsibility:

“It was neither poor workmanship to blame, nor poor machinery, but poor management. Management’s duty was to keep tools in good condition, belts maintained, machines oiled, standards established, the right men assigned the right jobs, work flowing smoothly to each. When it failed, the shop failed, however modern its lathes or able its lathesmen.” (p.225)

The message taken from the seminal Shop Management speech and paper,

“Taylor’s paper droned on to a slow, steady background beat - inescapable, implacable, inevitable: the control of work must be taken from the men who did it and placed in the hands of a new breed of planners and thinkers. These men would think everything through beforehand. The workmen - elements of production to be studied, manipulated and controlled - were to do as they were told. Everyone thereby prospered: workers got better pay, the company earned higher profits, the public paid lower prices. This great good flowed almost inevitably from a single, presumably unobjectionable act: the irreversible and complete handover of all planning, control, and decision making from the workmen to the new class of scientific managers.” (p.371/372)

Taylor is quoted to illustrate his idealist view of his system:

“Whether cooperation, the differential plan, or some other form of piece-work be chosen in connection with elementary rate-fixing, as the best method of working, there are certain fundamental facts and principles which must be recognized and incorporated in any system of management, before true and lasting success can be attained; and most of these facts and principles will be found to be not far removed from what the strictest moralists would call justice.” (p.283/284)

In his eyes, the system would only be for the benefit of people, and proper application could not lead to negative side-effects. Taylor claimed during the 1911 hearing before the congressional committee:

“It is possible to use the mechanism of scientific management, but not scientific management itself. It ceases to be scientific management the moment it is used for bad.” (p.477)

On this, Kanigel remarks:

“This was about like saying that a steam engine, at its first departure from the ideal, at the first sign of heat loss or mechanical friction, was no longer a steam engine.” (p.477)

On the religious aspects of scientific management:

“Rarely has an ostensibly secular movement so embraced religious language and imagery. Words like creed, cult, gospel, dogma, faith, and prophet dog any account of its history.” (p.412)

Which is related to his followers (often labelled “disciples”), who…

“…showed greater or lesser obedience to his doctrines, at times went out independently of him; but always Taylor was their acknowledged master. Even papers that clashed with his views would often include an almost ritualized nod of obeisance, as toward a Jesus, Luther, or Marx beyond criticism.” (p.412)

Interesting also to read that ‘scientific management’ was not a term that was originally coined by Taylor himself, but rather a label that on initiative of journalist Louis Brandeis was chosen among several alternatives to resolve the differences and unite the various advocates of efficiency. ‘Scientific management’ was chosen because a central claim of Taylor and others was that their approach was ‘scientific’. (p.431/432)

And yet, already at the time workmen resisted being watched, timed and judged by outsiders who knew nothing about the job in the worker’s eyes, and would determine ‘best’ ways and times quite arbitrarily. Another point of critique was that Taylorism reduced life to only work, and little else. Ironically, this resistance (culminating in a highly profiled strike) would eventually contribute to scientific management and Taylor gaining national fame…


Kanigel, R. (1997) The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. London: Little, Brown & Company.