4 Business Ideas That Changed the World: Scientific Management

4 Business Ideas That Changed the World: Scientific Management

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to 4 Business Ideas That Changed the World, a special series of the HBR IdeaCast. In 1878, a machinist at a Pennsylvania steelworks noticed that his crew was not producing nearly as much as he thought they could. Frederick Winslow Taylor began systematic studies to determine exactly how much work should be done. With stopwatches and later stop-motion film, Taylor analyzed the efficiency of workers, tweaking everything down to how they moved their arms, the size of their shovels, and how long they could take a breather. It helped factory owners make more pumps, steel, and ball bearings with lower labor costs. It was the birth of a management theory… called scientific management or Taylorism. And Taylor became the face of it, a world-renown management consultant before there were any. Critics said his drive for industrial efficiency depleted workers physically and emotionally. Congress held hearings on it. Still, scientific management was the dominant management theory 100 years ago in October of 1922, when Harvard Business Review was founded. It spread around the world, fueled the rise of big business, and helped decide World War II. And today it is baked into workplaces from call centers to restaurant kitchens, gig worker algorithms, and offices. Though few of us would recognize it and few employers would admit to it. In this special series from HBR IdeaCast, we’re exploring 4 Business Ideas that Changed the World. Each week, we talk to scholars and experts on the most influential ideas of HBR’s first 100 years, such as disruptive innovation, shareholder value, and emotional intelligence. This week: “Scientific Management.” With me to discuss it are Nancy Koehn, historian at Harvard Business School. Michela Giorcelli, an economic historian at UCLA. And Louis Hyman, a work and labor historian at Cornell University. I’m Curt Nickisch, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and your host for this episode. Nancy, let’s start with you. How were workers managed at the time that Taylor joined the workforce in 1878?

NANCY KOEHN: That’s a great question. And the answer is all over the map. That is, how workers were managed and what their experience of working was in 1878, varied enormously, by industry, by place, by tradition, which still had a very big role to play in how workers and management came together to produce a good or a service. Although it was, by far in a way, about goods in the late 19th century in America. So, you had people like, in the early years of the steel business, an industry that Taylor will get into. Trying to figure out how, as they learned that making more steel makes the price of each unit of steel go down. In other words, they stumble into economies of scale. And they’re struggling to figure out, well, what does that mean for how we put men, mostly men in the steel business, together with capital? You have these different evolving, often chaotic arrangements. So, when we think of, you know, high-efficiency factory production today, we, we don’t have any, any inkling into what it was like in the late 19th century, to be in a factory because it was much, much more learning by doing, and much more disorganized than when we think of, say, semiconductor production today.

CURT NICKISCH: Louis, at the time, what was the understanding of being productive, of productivity?

LOUIS HYMAN: Well, I’m just going to echo Nancy here, that we think of productivity today as, how much stuff could I make? How efficient am I? Well, these ideas are not ahistorical. They’re grounded in a particular set of values that comes out of the transition from working in a shop of an apprentice system to a world where you are working in a factory for a boss. That is the emergence of wage work. And it’s not just technology that changes, which we’re all very familiar with, but social relationships that we go from a place where the apprentice and the master, in a sense, the master of a craft like a cobbler work side by side to produce a few high-quality shoes every day, to a world where a wage worker wants to produce as many shoes, as possible of an uncertain quality. So, workers themselves, as they are apprentice and masters imagine that, why shouldn’t I drink beer and sing songs while I make my shoes? This is quite different than the world of a factory, where Taylor exists.

CURT NICKISCH: Michela, can you develop that further? It’s, it’s hard to imagine for us today, right, a time when productivity wasn’t even an economic principle.

MICHELA GIORCELLI: It definitely is, but as Louis just pointed out, despite its centrality in the modern debate, productivity is a fairly recent concept. Businesses were very small. They would average three to four workers. It was very easy for the owner to coordinate their task, to monitor their jobs. And very easy, owners and employees that were working side by side to produce output. The situation traumatically changed with the industrial revolution because the dynamic of the workplace was completely changed. Let’s think, for instance, the company is building railroads and telegraphs. At that point, it became extremely important to assign the best task workers, in order to coordinate production across different units and in different parts of the country. As such, the development of the concept of productivity is strongly related to the development of the concept of management. Intended as a bundle of practices, that coordinate the tasks and the work of the employees, in order to reach the optimum productivity.

CURT NICKISCH: So, this is the business world that Taylor came into. Nancy, who was Frederick Winslow Taylor? And what did he experience in his first job?

NANCY KOEHN: So, Frederick Winslow Taylor was the son of Quakers. His father was a successful lawyer, who actually had made enough money, um, that he could live a kind of life of leisure. And his mother, a woman named Emily Annette Taylor, a direct descendant of Mayflower voyagers, way back in the 17th century. She was also an ardent abolitionist and suffragette. So, he comes from this, again, patrician family with, you know, a very active mother. And you know, this is a young man who had nightmares, as a boy, invents a machine, a set of harnesses to wake him up when he starts to turn so he doesn’t have nightmares.


NANCY KOEHN: This is a young man who before he goes to a party, makes a list of all the attractive girls and the unattractive girls, and resolves to spend equal time with both. This is a young man when he plays croquet says, “Oh, here’s the geometry of this particular croquet field. And here are the kind of vectors, I wanna be able to hit, to win the game.” I mean, he’s, he’s interested in control, which is an important aspect of scientific management. He passes the Harvard admissions exams with some m- room to spare, but he has these terrible headaches and real eye problems. And decides not to enroll in college. And instead, he takes a job as a worker, he later will kinda rise to management, in Philadelphia, in what today we call a machine tool company. It’s called Enterprise Hydraulics, and it makes pumps. And, and he, he begins to think then, about how do you increase efficiency in labor’s relationship to management, and in labor’s relationship to the machines or the tools they use, as part of their role in increasing productivity.

CURT NICKISCH: What did he see there, at work? And, you know, what did he end up doing about the problems that he solved?

NANCY KOEHN: Well, he sees that, that workers are in his eyes, not working as hard, as they can. And he, he becomes interested in how do I kinda tease out that problem, right, unpack it and what do we do about it. Most workers, including the apprentices that Louis was talking about, are paid based on what they make, or, or how much they make. So, in that kind of system, workers are trying to, you know, do more. But ultimately, in almost every kind of piece rate or pay from what today, an economist like Michela would call pay for workers marginal product, in that setting, almost all managers said, “Well, after a certain point, you’re not gonna get any more.” So, there’s, if you will, a kind of pay ceiling. Well, workers figured that out real quick and decide, Well, I’m only gonna work as hard as I need to work in order to make the maximum that my boss will pay me. And that then, presents a really interesting problem for Frederick Taylor which is, how do I get workers to work more? So, that’s part of the problem. Workers aren’t working as hard, as they can. And they’re not necessarily working in a standardized way. And that was true in the way that you heard Louis speaks so eloquently about, shops and apprenticeships and small-scale manufacturing. And even, remember, in America, a lot of America is still moving from the farm to the factory. So, you have people that never worked indoors before, in a sense. Adding to, if you will, the uncertainty and the caprice and the variation that Frederick Taylor sees. And that makes him anxious and determined to clean things up.

CURT NICKISCH: So, he starts conducting experiments to better control what workers are doing. Is that right?

NANCY KOEHN: That’s exactly what he starts doing, right? And he comes up with all kinds of what today, we’d call, well, we might call them standard operating practice. I was just gonna say, use the word, rules, right? Ways of doing things, um, in very specific ways of doing things. Every single job can be reduced to a series, maybe a very small number of tasks, done one right way. One right way. And he’s trying to reduce, right, the amount, if you will, the standard deviation in what each worker does in a very specific way along a very specific, what today we would call, production function.

CURT NICKISCH: What experiments is he running? What is he making workers do?

NANCY KOEHN: So, one of the things he’s doing, for example, in Midvale, where he’ll spend some real length of time. So, the famous one is a Dutchman, an immigrant laborer who, handpicked by Frederick Taylor, what he called a first-class man. And he does a series of studies about how Schmidt, which is a name he gives him in his, in his writings, moves pig iron, right. It’s not moving on a conveyor belt, he’s moving pig iron.

NANCY KOEHN: And, and by showing Schmidt how to do this, right, you, you bend down this way. You pick it up here. You take this many steps over, across the whatever, the factory floor to move it over here. And then, you rest at certain intervals. And you rest for exactly whatever, 90 seconds. By showing him exactly how to do that, according to Frederick Taylor, he increases Schmidt’s output by almost, I think it’s three and a half fold. It’s like, from 12 tons a day to something like, 47 tons of pig iron a day, that he’s moving. And how he literally dissects that all the way down to how many steps he takes, and how many times he does it before he rests for how many seconds. That is the essence of what he’s doing, for, for a myriad, scores and scores of component parts of a job.

LOUIS HYMAN: What I think an important part of what Nancy is talking about, it’s not just the imagination of work, but the imagination of the worker. What’s crucial here, is that his idea of Schmidt is an idea, and it appeals to the readers of his theory. So, he describes him, as you know a first-rate man in terms of his ability, very strong, very industrious. But also quote, “Mentally sluggish.”


LOUIS HYMAN: That this is someone who is not really able to solve problems for himself. Taylor writes about him, that he is so stupid that the word percentage has no meaning for him. So, it’s not simply possible to give him incentives through piece rates to make him work harder. He has to be guided by the hand of a manager.

CURT NICKISCH: Michela, Taylor’s coming up with this system then, to make workers do things a certain way. And he leaves Midvale Ironworks in 1890, and spends the next years consulting with various companies, Bethlehem Steel one of them, to help them increase productivity. He eventually even refashions himself as a management consultant – perhaps the first one ever, right?

MICHELA GIORCELLI: Yes, exactly. So, Taylor developed himself a new profession and called himself a consulting engineer in management. And in this role, Taylor ended up serving a long list of prominent firms in many industries, cities, and towns. And his main goal, when he was working with these different companies in different roles, was to develop the core ideas of the, scientific management like the idea of scientific selection of workers. And the importance of differential pay incentives, in order to motivate the workers to increase productivity. So, the fact that he spent many years consulting around the country actually helped him to put together the principles of scientific management that will become the title of his most famous book published in 1911.

CURT NICKISCH: Mm-hmm. Louis, how did workers feel about Taylor’s methods?

LOUIS HYMAN: Not good, Curt, not good. It was an incredibly exhausting way to work with somebody else telling you what to do all day, how to move your body.

CURT NICKISCH: Having somebody stand there with a stopwatch.

LOUIS HYMAN: No, you don’t feel like a man. You feel like a dog, right? You are being inspected constantly. And it is very hard to feel good about what you do, and you’re listening to his watch rather than your body over when you’re tired. And maybe your wages go up, maybe they go up 50{ac23b82de22bd478cde2a3afa9e55fd5f696f5668b46466ac4c8be2ee1b69550} and your productivity goes up 250{ac23b82de22bd478cde2a3afa9e55fd5f696f5668b46466ac4c8be2ee1b69550}. But ultimately, you don’t care because it’s not just about that one day of lugging pig iron, this is your whole life.

CURT NICKISCH: Hmm. Nancy, how did factory managers and owners that Taylor worked with, feel about him and his results?

NANCY KOEHN: So, the answer is very much mixed in terms of how managers and firm owners reacted to Taylor. There was a personal piece, which was he was, I think autocratic and very, very convinced. I mean, there’s something very naively utopian about Frederick Taylor. He thought was gonna build a world in which there was so much surplus created by all this increased labor productivity, that there would be no reason to fight about the surplus. He, he felt this was gonna be such a benefit to everyone concerned, that he could never understand why not only workers, but firm owners and managers who didn’t always welcome his, you know, it was either my way or the highway with Frederick Taylor, or Fred Taylor.

NANCY KOEHN: And I think both, in terms of his attitude and in terms of his didactic sense of, this is the way we’ll do it, he confused and he angered a variety of different kinds of managers. Particularly foremen, but also firm owners. He really was certain that there was one right way, and it was his way.

CURT NICKISCH: Mm-hmm. So, somehow, despite all this resistance, both from workers and some of the people who employed him, this method ends up becoming a movement. Michela, when did scientific management start attracting followers, outside just the, you know, word of mouth work that Taylor was getting here and there, at different companies?

MICHELA GIORCELLI: The first, the large-scale diffusion, up in 1903, when Taylor presented the first paper at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers annual conference. In the following years, this was between 1904 and 1912. Taylor devoted his time and his money to promote and diffuse the principle of scientific management. He traveled a lot around the country, giving lectures in university, talking at professional societies. And in this way, the ideas of Taylorism start spreading in the US. However, the turning point happened in 1910, when there was an Interstate Commerce Commission hearing and one of the attorneys argues that the U.S. railroads could have saved up to $1 million a day, if they introduced the scientific management principle. That hearing was extremely popular at the time, widespread coverage in the newspapers. Taylor’s scientific management ideas were on every lip. And the idea of efficiency, in a way – the productivity drive that is one of the core characteristics of the U.S. business model in the 20th century – starts becoming a national idea.

CURT NICKISCH: Nancy, right around this same time, workers go on strike at an arsenal, just outside Boston, to protest Taylor’s methods. Fun fact, Harvard Business Review was actually headquartered there at the Arsenal. I interviewed there, when I got this job. What happened at that strike?

NANCY KOEHN: So, Taylor sent one of his disciples to institute basically, time motions studies. And he shows up with a stopwatch. And he starts timing different workers doing different things. Clicking the stopwatch, and you know, I’m sure he’s got a clipboard and he’s writing things down. One worker says, “I won’t let you time me.” And management immediately fires him because management is interested in what Taylor’s work can bring to productivity at the arsenal. So, the worker is fired on the spot. And then, all the other workers just walk off the job and strike. And so, it’s a very good example of the assumption that there’s one right way, that only a certain small group of people called managers and scientific management experts – today we might call them consultants – that only small group of elite folks have that one right way. And that they have the power to put that one right way in place, regardless of the experience it offers for workers. And again, you think about the suddenness of this transition for many, many workers between 1880 and 1920, coming literally in many cases, off a vessel from Europe or some other part of the world as immigrants, and moving into factories. And the abruptness, right, and the, the massive discrepancy in power, the idea that what you know and what you’ve learned on a job isn’t worth anything if there’s only one way to do it. And the only people that can tell you that are the small group of high priests in industrial capitalism.

CURT NICKISCH: The strike got so much attention Congress investigated it.

NANCY KOEHN: Right. Congress investigates another moment for Taylorism, to take the spotlight on some kind of national stage. And on Capitol Hill, it wasn’t greeted with, you know, unconditional approval. Quite the opposite piece here, that was very, very important. A Congressman named William Wilson who is the chair of the committee that’s investigating Taylor, is worried about all the things we’ve been talking about here. Is it all about, just increasing speed? So, lots of folks on Capitol Hill, like Wilson, were concerned and so were labor leaders, about the skills that Louis was talking about, the lots of workers develop on the job in lots of different kinds of businesses and industries and production processes. What happens to that if we’re breaking down every single task into these tiny component parts and basically saying, there’s no room for any kind of discretion or experience or innovation to happen on the part of working men and women?

CURT NICKISCH: Louis, Nancy mentioned labor leaders there. How did the larger labor movement figure into this backlash?

LOUIS HYMAN: Well, I think they figured into it in the way that Nancy was talking about, as not just the question of making more widgets, moving more pig iron. But the larger political meaning of it for a democratic citizenry. Now, a long question throughout the 19th century was, how can wage work exist in a democracy? In a sense that, how can you obey for eight, 10, 12 hours a day, and then, expect to be free the rest of your time? How is it possible for someone who is so broken and dominated to then, exercise political freedom? And this is exactly what the president of the American Federation of Labor, Sam Gompers, tells congress. He says, “I grant you that if this Taylor system is put into operation, as we see it and, as we understand it, it will mean great production in goods and things. But in so far, as man is concerned, it means destruction.” And that is the question of Taylorism. Of course, you can make more stuff, but what is the cost? What is the cost in democracy? What is the cost in the long-term health of those workers? Gompers tells congress that Taylorism was the antithesis of industrial education. Because what Gompers was all about, was the idea that workers could be educated to be more productive. Why did they need those managers coming in, in with their stopwatches? Why couldn’t they themselves begin to figure out better production processes? And so, in some ways, this anticipates the insights at Toyota later in the 20th century. This kind of bottom-up worker knowledge of… obviously Gompers doesn’t call it Toyotaism. But the fundamental question for Gompers is, what are humans for? What is the range of human capacities? What is it the worth of the person, if they’re expected to become like a machine? And so, for Gompers then, productivity is not a neutral idea.


LOUIS HYMAN: But essentially about the power between workers and owners in that exact moment, but also in the future of America. For whom do the benefits of productivity flow? Does it go to the owners of capital? Does it go to the workers themselves? And I think that is the great debate, you know. Maybe I do get paid enough that I get an extra beer in the weekend. But what does that mean, if I’m so exhausted, so worn out, so, so broken, by this kind of work, that I don’t even want to leave my house on the weekend?

CURT NICKISCH: Michela, what was the upside of that congressional hearing? Did it stunt the spread of scientific management? Or was this one of those, any publicity is good publicity, sort of things?

MICHELA GIORCELLI: It was definitely one of, any publicity is good publicity. In the sense that, on paper, the committee report stated that neither the Taylor system or other management systems should impose on the workers against their will. And also, that any system of shop management, that should be the outcome of a mutual consensus between the workers and the managers. However, the committee declined to make any recommendation for this legislation. And so, and Taylor was very lucky to have the Congress come up with a very mild report. And Taylorism could continue to be spread and to be adopted, not only in the U.S., but also worldwide in the years to come.

CURT NICKISCH: Coming up after the break, we’re going to follow that spread, and discover how Taylorism got baked into our modern life and work. One hundred years later, have the human and social costs of increased productivity been resolved? Stay with us.

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome back to 4 Big Ideas That Changed the World: Scientific Management. I’m Curt Nickisch. Nancy, Taylor died in 1915, really kind of at the height of scientific management as an overt practice. This is a time when business schools were cropping up around the United States. Harvard Business Review was founded in 1922. The practice of management is taking shape and scientific management has pole position there. What effect did it have on the U.S. economy in the 20th century?

NANCY KOEHN: The British management scholar Lyndall Urwick observed that America owes to Taylor a large of incalculable proportion of the immense productivity and high standard of living that began to take hold, as the 19th century became the 20th century. I’m very skeptical of that. Scientific management took hold with, you know, corresponding larger effects in certain industries and not in, in others. You know, Taylorism didn’t really affect retailing. It really didn’t, you know, affect other industries, where labor was a very, very important piece of the story, in terms of the contribution of labor. DuPont Chemical, a huge – or Procter & Gamble, you know, a huge consumer products company, it’s not clear that Taylorism had a big effect in that company, say between the years of 1890 and 1950. It’s just, Taylorism took hold in places where labor’s contribution could be, you know, sliced into these tiny slices. Taylor played a big role there. That’s a big idea that mattered, right? But in terms of actually hiking up productivity, industry by industry, and the leading industries that created the 20th-century American economy, I think we’re on more shaky ground. Let me say one other thing, though, that’s really important to the, the power of the idea of scientific management, you know. Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant, writer, thoughtful commentator on the evolution of business and management. Once said that Taylor was so important, he displaced [Karl] Marx in the pantheon of critical thinkers in the modern age. He included Darwin, Freud, and Marx. And he said, nope. Make way for Fred Taylor. Karl Marx goes out. I disagree with that completely, right? Karl Marx, right, understood that if Frederick Taylor would come along, commoditize labor, diminishes human creative, innovative potential, and squeeze it into a piece of a machine, and that’s what scientific management did in so many ways, subtly and less subtly. It really moved Marx’s prediction for the role of labor in industrial capitalism ahead, by leaps and bounds. He codified Marx by saying, “Labor is a commodity. We can get it to do exactly what we want. We want first-class pieces of commodity like Schmidt, and we’re gonna tell them exactly how to do things down to the second. Now, you contrast that with other kinds of productive processes, both in the Toyota system, Japanese capitalism, or German capitalism, or the beginnings of the information revolution in Silicon Valley, and the situation is completely different. And in all those, in all those instances, you have massive game-changing increases in productivity.

CURT NICKISCH: Sticking with the communists here, Louis, one surprising fan of Taylor’s ideas was the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Can you tell us more about that?

LOUIS HYMAN: Sure. Initially, Lenin was very skeptical of scientific management, following other kinds of labor critics that it was just a way to sweat more labor. That is to put people in sweat shots to increase their productivity, but not really pay them for the full value of that increased productivity. But he changes his mind. So, in 1917, he releases his book, The State and Revolution, which, if you’re the kind of person who is romantic about Marx, this book will not make you romantic about Lenin. So, if Marx imagines a future where we work a few hours a day, we fish a little, we do philosophy, in some sense, this is, imagining us all, as capitalists living off the prosperity. Well, this is not Lenin’s vision at all. In Lenin’s vision, he’s very much in line with Taylor’s thinking. Only, instead of management, there is the state. Lenin suggests that every worker should have six hours of physical work daily. And then, four hours of working for the state. So, a total of 10 hours. And this is a very different conception from Marx. And certainly, a different conception of what labor leaders like Gompers, want to see the future as. But it speaks to the underlying brutality and antihumanism in certain ways of Taylorism, and, of course, Leninism.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, he thought it worked, right? And he wanted to implement it, so that the Soviet Union would be competitive. Michela, we just heard about Lenin there, but how did Taylor’s idea spread outside the US?

MICHELA GIORCELLI: Taylor’s idea had two key characteristics to spread outside the US. The first one is that they were very adaptable, meaning that they were not specific to give them, from size, or a given sector. And this goes back to what we discussed before – the fact that Taylor has developed his, his ideas after widespread consulting in different industries, in different firms across the US. And the second key characteristic is that Taylor’s ideas were complemented by firm-specific practices. For instance, Taylorism was very well accepted in Japan. But the interpretation of the productivity drive in Japan was a little bit different relative to the US. The idea of increasing productivity in Japan was mostly related to the management of waste, and reducing waste, as much, as possible. And in a way, these were the first steps of lean production and the lean management system that would become predominant in Japan in the late ’60s and in the ’70s. Taylorism also spread in Europe. It ended up being adopted in many countries, including Britain and France, were the two European countries more active in the adoption of Taylorism.

CURT NICKISCH: So, was the industrial efficiency of the U.S. in World War II, did that strengthen this notion of exporting scientific management?

MICHELA GIORCELLI: Yes, absolutely. In the early ’40s, the technical and scientific knowledge of some European countries like Germany and the U.S. was very comparable. However, what was key for the U.S. to winning the war, was being able to produce at much higher speed than all the other European countries. And indeed, the U.S. invested a lot in the program for diffusion of managerial knowledge and scientific management. One of the most famous programs sponsored by the U.S. between 1940 and 1945, was managerial consulting to large U.S. companies involved in work production. After World War II, the U.S. sponsored, um, many programs to diffuse managerial technology. World War II definitely helped to create the so-called U.S. way of doing business. That was exported to Europe and Japan, in the aftermath of World War II.

CURT NICKISCH: Okay. Louis, as we move forward in the 20th century, the economy moves away from the factory and the shop floor. More service sector, more professional services. Did scientific management make that transition too?

LOUIS HYMAN: Absolutely. It has a huge shadow, a long shadow over how we think about the workplace. And this urge to quantify workers, to quantify time, existed as much, in the typing pools of words per minute, as it did in moving tons of pig iron. The movements and machines of fry cooks, as much, as textile workers. And now, of course, in the gig economy, or on bikes and cars, or on computers, where workers are constantly surveilled, treated like a commodity, watched by algorithms that are very much the descendants of Taylor’s stopwatch. And so, Taylor is everywhere. And it’s built into a kind of visceral sense of how to manage. You don’t really get an alternative in America to Taylorism until Douglas McGregor developed his famous Theory X and Theory Y. And Theory X is basically Taylor. And Theory Y is Gompers, that, that workers actually like being engaged with their work. They actually learn to take pride in their work. They respond to incentives. They can actually calculate percentages. But part of the reason why this Theory Y is possible to imagine by the 1960s, is that on the one hand, you have several generations of mass education, both in grade school and in high school. But also, the cutoff of immigrants. So, this is exactly the moment when the number of people who are born outside the U.S. is at its, its lowest point ever. So, it’s very easy to imagine other Americans like yourself, if you are a manager. And so, we see this story of who is like us and who is different than us, again, play out in this possibility of a new way to think about management. But even in those theories that are beginning to be developed in the 1960s, there is a sense that productivity remains everything.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Nancy, Louis was talking there about scientific management kind of baked into contemporary offices and, and workplaces. Are we scientifically managed?

NANCY KOEHN: One of the really interesting aspects, just to get and to feed on the question what Louis just said, is how scientific management in the last 40 years has come to retailing, has come to call centers, has come to Amazon warehouses, has come to restaurants. As scientific management, as the economy has shifted, has increased its reach. Um, you see that both, in the recent unionization drives at Amazon, which have then, right, been undergirded by particular workers’ experiences, including h-

CURT NICKISCH: Right, how many times can you use the restroom?

LOUIS HYMAN: Absolutely.

NANCY KOEHN: And how much time has to elapse before you go back to the restroom, right? And how many boxes are you supposed to pack? We see it there. We see it in call centers, where if you scratch the surface of most call centers, right, which regardless of where they’re physically located, you will find people with headsets managed down to the minute. Not only in terms of bathroom breaks, but how many calls they have to handle per 15 minutes interval. It’s extraordinary. Call centers are the new, you know, Midvale Steel. So, I think that yes, I think that we, we are scientifically managed in, in many, many different kinds of work. Not all occupations are scientifically managed, but many, many of them were that weren’t, say, 60 years ago. And that speaks not only to its ability to adapt and evolve to new industries and new kinds of economic activity. It also speaks again to the huge hegemony that scientific management has had on the question of, how should workers and management do what they do together. The idea that, you know, kind of leaves us all in the dust, is Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. And that’s today, right, and it was true in 1910. And to me, that’s just so astounding. Why this answer? Why this right way? ‘Cause there isn’t one right way, and the history of capitalism shows us that. Even the history of Silicon Valley shows us that. But still, it’s scientific management that has left all kinds of other ideas, at least in America, in the dust.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, Michela. How is scientific management regarded today? If I use that term with people, a lot of people don’t even know it.

MICHELA GIORCELLI: Yes. Scientific management idea doesn’t have a very good perception today. In the sense that scientific management is seen as the program that denigrates the workers’ activity in order to increase productivity. But indeed, almost all the firms all over the world, adopt the scientific management principle. In the sense that, all the production is organized today, not only in the industry but also in services, is strongly shaped by the idea of productivity. And this is also testified by the increasing importance of managers, the rise of managers’ compensation that are considered key inputs for a firm, success. So, definitely the legacy of Taylor, even if maybe not properly acknowledged, is present in all the type of businesses.

CURT NICKISCH: Louis, how much do we owe our understanding of being productive and efficient and even, feeling productive or, you know, hating waste to Taylor?

LOUIS HYMAN: Well, Curt, it’s interesting. I think that the way we think about productivity is rooted in Taylor. But it’s also Taylor that roots us in a very particular conception of work. That on the one hand, there is a worker who is valuable, who is creative. This is the manager, as worker, right? This is the Silicon Valley programmer who is still lauded today. On the other hand, there is the worker who is not creative, and in sense then, not valuable. This is the person we should treat like a machine. When we look at the history of Silicon Valley, we often see the history of these technologists and coders, these creatives who play ping pong, whatever, who sit around in Bahama shorts, just not really doing anything, but then, having a great thought. But behind that-

CURT NICKISCH: And they’re drinking beer on the job, just like they did in Taylor’s time.

LOUIS HYMAN: Exactly. They did, right? But behind that is a whole world of production that gets written out of the history, you know. In the 1970s and ’80s, we hear the story of Steve Jobs and the Woz and Apple. But we hear less about the hundreds of thousands of people who actually worked in assembly plants in Silicon Valley.


LOUIS HYMAN: And oftentimes, when these factories were talked about, they were talked about as robots building robots. But every time somebody said “robot,” if you actually looked at the actual people who worked there, how things were actually made in these lean production sites, it was actually women. Usually, women of color, who are usually immigrants. And so, we still have this imagination of some work being valuable, and some people being valuable. And they sort of, reinforce one another. What is the meaning of this today? Well, we are still thinking of productivity as something very bifurcated between those who, we don’t need them to be productive. They are 10X programmers. They are creative entrepreneurs. They can do amazing things in a few minutes, as long, as we give them time to think. And then, we imagine people who can’t think. People who aren’t deserving of time, people who aren’t deserving of that kind of creative human potential. For me, that is the moral meaning of productivity. This question of, who we value and what do we value?

CURT NICKISCH: Hmm. So, I want to ask each of you where scientific management leaves us, you know, today, in this world of work? What kind of future are we pointed to, now? And, I’ll go around the horn, but Nancy, maybe we could start with you.

NANCY KOEHN: So, I just want to pick up some threads, that there’s a runoff of one’s humanity in scientific management. A runoff of, you know, a giant sucking sound that says, some people, just to echo Louis, are, are more important than others. Some people make bigger contributions than others. Some work is more valued than others. And therefore, some people are more valued than others. That’s simply not, it’s just not, those are not very good eye beams to go into a century now, increasingly dominated by a- automation, artificial intelligence, and a very kind of unabashed and not terribly thoughtful embrace of all things technological. The storyline here, is not pulling from, in all kinds of directions. Not just morally, and not just in terms of political, social economic equality. And the massively destructive effects of the huge ramp-ups in inequality wealth and income we’ve seen over the last 50 years around the world. But this, even though, even holding those away. The storyline here, doesn’t look like it ends terribly well. And I think that piece, right, which Gompers, Gompers was talking about, you know, and, and so were other labor leaders in the, all throughout the first three of four decades of the 20th century. In which, a few politicians today, are talking about, that’s a very, it’s a very important nugget for all of us to chew on.


MICHELA GIORCELLI: I will take a more economic perspective, here. And I see that the legacy of Taylorism has a lot to do with productivity. The idea of increasing productivity will remain with us also, in the future. It may, however, change. There are recent studies, for instance, focusing on the productivity of working from home. Or how technology allows us to work together. And we saw that during the pandemic, it allows us to increase productivity even without being physically in the same place. So, I think that the productivity is still there, help manage workers is still there. But the way in which it’s happening is changing, moving from the factory perspective, workplace perspective, to more of the work per se, no matter where it is performed.


LOUIS HYMAN: Yeah. I think that this question of, what is the meaning of Taylor and productivity in the digital age, as Nancy and Michela were just saying, is the essential one. So, the question remains, as it did a century ago, who benefits from increased productivity? And in the digital era, there is again, the promise of machines continuing to liberate us from drudgery. To enable us, to become more fully human in our work. And this is important because we have a lot of challenges in the 21st century. And there’s so much talent in the world that right now, is sitting behind a cash register, making change, or more, just wrestling, hauling water back from a stream to her house. And so, we need technology to liberate us from these. And we don’t need it for workplace surveillance. So, I think the question about productivity is less about technology than the social imagination. How do we bring ourselves into this conversation about increasing our productivity, so that we can turn over that drudgery to our machines, to our computers, so that we can focus on human potential, human relationships, and human work?

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Nancy Koehn at Harvard Business School, Michela Giorcelli at UCLA, and Louis Hyman at Cornell. Next time in 4 Business Ideas That Changed the World: disruptive innovation. HBR editor Amy Bernstein will talk to three experts about how our understanding has evolved of how new entrants succeed in the marketplace – and how to hack it in your favor. That’s next Thursday right here, in the HBR IdeaCast feed after our regular Tuesday episode. This episode was produced by Anne Saini. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch. Thanks for listening to 4 Business Ideas That Changed the World, a special series of the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.