WSJ’s Wrong Conclusion on Frederick Taylor


Deja Vu – “Early Industry Expert Soon Realized a Staff Had Its Own Efficiency”

The WSJ has it wrong on manufacturing, once again. Not that I expect the Wall Street Journal to be a friend of the “working man,” I do expect their columnists to have a better understanding of manufacturing and factory workers, given it is such a large part of our economy (the WSJ would be shocked to hear that, even given recent articles). The WSJ consistently writes about manufacturing as something that should have all been offshored long ago, so I'm not surprised they get it wrong on Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management.”

The WSJ starts their piece by laying out a brief history of Taylorism, starting with the typical manager belief that most workers are lazy and slow and motivated only by money:

It's the age-old lament of managers, as expressed by Frederick W. Taylor, an industrial engineer and so-called father of scientific management, who inspired America's efficiency craze in the early 20th century. Mr. Taylor didn't think much of the common laborer's work ethic. Where machines could run steadily for 24 hours, their human operators would “soldier” — deliberately slow their pace.

“The tendency of the average man is toward working at a slow, easy gait,” he said.

Mr. Taylor also believed that workers could be motivated only by money. But if they were paid a flat day rate, they had no incentive to produce more than yesterday. If they were paid by the piece, they knew from experience their employer would likely cut the piece rate. “When a naturally energetic man works for a few days beside a lazy one,” Mr. Taylor wrote, “the logic of the situation is unanswerable. ‘Why should I work hard when that lazy fellow gets the same pay I do and does only half the work?' “

The column goes on to highlight some of the failings of Taylorism, albeit in a very indirect way (and in a way that, I believe, missed the point entirely).

They say, without negative commentary:

Using rules of science, not rule of thumb, management found the “one best way” to do every job, even such a basic task as shoveling.

That's problem one with Taylorism — the MANAGERS, the educated ones, were tasked with determining the best way of doing something. That's one area where the Toyota Production System and Lean best the Taylorist approach. With Lean/TPS, the workers are the ones to determine the best way, the best methods. Sure, management has oversight, but the Lean concept of “Standard Work” isn't something that's handed down to workers from on high.

Mr. Taylor persuaded several large companies to adopt his system, with varying success. It was a slow and painful process convincing workers only to do, not to think. Many manufacturing employees were first-generation immigrants from Germany and Great Britain, where work had traditionally been associated with subjective and independent craftsmanship. Union leaders denounced Taylorism as inhumane, and bills were introduced in both houses of Congress forbidding the use of stopwatches in government work.

If there was any Toyota-like notion of “Respect for People”, the Taylorists would have never WANTED to convince workers to only do, not think. The WSJ doesn't point out any sort of problem with that mindset. I'm sure they find it perfectly natural that manufacturing “workers” should only work, not think. As for Congress banning stopwatches, it's no wonder — the WSJ piece points out that Taylor used hidden stopwatches, another Taylor approach that ranks low on the “Respect for People” scale.

The second failing of Taylorism was the notion of piece-work pay. Piece-work has long been considered to be an enemy of quality and an enemy of Lean. In my upcoming Podcast with David Mann, he talks about how Steelcase moved away from piece-work early in their Lean journey. With piece-work, the workers had incentive to keep cranking out parts that customers didn't need, not a good approach.

The WSJ points to the failure of Taylorism, but again, draws the wrong conclusion. They say:

But as Mr. Taylor should have known, his system was doomed in all but a few settings. Soldiering was a force of nature, not subject to human rules of science. “Rates of work are not determined by chance or by the quirks of individual personality,” wrote Hugh G. J. Aitken in “Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal,” his 1960 study. “A norm of output is a universal feature of all organized groups, set and maintained by the group itself and often defended by highly effective sanctions.”

Basically, they are saying the Taylor system was doomed because the collective power of lazy workers won out over Scientific Management. Taylorism is hardly dead. I'd argue it is STILL the basic of the dominant business thinking of the day (as the WSJ so often illustrates). “Pure” Taylorism (with its piece-work pay) might not be the norm, but most of the business world still thinks that the educator managers are the ones who have to design all processes and fix all problems.

Taylorist thinking is threatened mainly by Lean Thinking and the Toyota Production System, a system that agrees on creating a “current one best way” — a best way that is created with worker input and is IMPROVED upon over time (the notion of “kaizen” or continous improvement). When Lean is the dominant mode of business (if that happens), then we can write the obituary about Taylorism and Taylorist thinking.

Ironically enough, the WSJ article raises an idea that *is* very valid and relevant today:

Mr. Taylor's system might have ended up on the towering junk heap of short-lived management fads except for the highly publicized Eastern Rate Case. In 1910, after the railroads awarded their workers a wage hike, the operators requested a compensatory increase in their regulated shipping rates. A group of eastern trade associations, trying to keep down their shipping costs, retained Louis Brandeis to argue before the Interstate Commerce Commission the railroads didn't need more income, they needed to make their operations more efficient. In fact, Mr. Brandeis argued, the railroads could save $1 million a day simply by using the principles of scientific management.

The rate increase was rejected, and the public was entranced; everything from schools to churches to households could be operated more efficiently.

The railroad was making an old “Mass Production” thinking argument: my costs (labor) went up, so I'm entitled to pass along a price increase to my customers. Toyota thinking teaches us that the MARKET sets prices and that prices often have zero relation to your internal costs. Brandeis argued, as Toyota would, that you have an obligation to reduce costs through efficiency improvement. You can't rely solely on passing along costs, your customers won't accept it for long (if they have a choice). Even today, far too many companies whine about how they “have” to pass along costs, it's a topic that I write about often here on the LeanBlog (as do other lean blogs).

What do you think? Is Taylorism dead? Long live Taylorism? Should I quit picking on the WSJ?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark – your post, and the WSJ article are very timely.

    Bob Emiliani has been gracious enough to share an upcoming article he has authored to be published in a week or so on In the article, Emiliani examines a 1925 book by Stuart Chase titled, “The Tragedy of Waste”. One of the underlying themes from the article is the evolution of lean (starting with Taylorism’s focus on productivity) and how many of the ideas from the progressive era are not so different from what we’re working with today.

    Look for a link to Emiliani’s article on with some added content on the Lean blog in the next couple of weeks.

  2. Taylorism is even worse than you imagine. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly in June 2006, Matthew Stewart points out some of the lesser-known aspects of the famous Bethlehem Steel experiment (apologies for the lengthy quote, but it’s worth it):

    “[Taylor] offered to double the workers’ wages in exchange for their participation in an experiment. The Hungarians, eager to impress their apparent benefactor, put on a spirited show. Huffing up and down the rail car ramps, they loaded sixteen and a half tons in something under fourteen minutes….

    “The most significant variable in Taylor’s pig iron calculation was the 40 percent “adjustment” he made in extrapolating from a fourteen-minute sample to a full workday. Why time a bunch of Hungarians down to the second if you’re going to daub the results with such a great blob of fudge? When he was grilled before Congress on the matter, Taylor casually mentioned that in other experiments these “adjustments” ranged from 20 percent to 225 percent.

    “Taylor. . . often appeared to float free from the kind of accountability that they demanded from everybody else. Others might have been asked, for example: Did Bethlehem’s profits increase as a result of their work? Taylor, however, rarely addressed the question head-on. With good reason. Bethlehem fired him in 1901 and threw out his various systems.”

  3. I’m sad to say it, but I think taylor is still alive. In our company the leadership thinks that a bright 5S’d workplace is ‘lean.’ Taylor’s fingerprints are on many of the metrics that management put on people. We really like to measure pieces or pounds per man hour. And then somebody will take out the changeover time out of the ‘man hour’ because its not fair. Then when the machine breaks down those hours come out too. pretty soon there are only 2 man hours when you are paying for 8. It is kind of like Taylor’s adjustments.

    One criticism of Taylor’s methods is that you will end up focussing on the ‘value added’ part of the process. One of my peers went to his constraining process (I know I am mixing my Shingo/Ohno with my Goldratt but we can sell additional units right now) and look at OEE. What he learned was that performance (my loose definition – how well the machine runs when it is actually running – or value added time) was pretty high, ~85%. His Availability (my loose definition – how many minutes the machine was running compared to how much we wanted it to run) was ~45%. Traditional industrial engineering would wait for the machine to run then ‘make it run better’. That’s not a bad thing but bigger and maybe easier opportunities exist in ‘harvesting’ some nonvalue added time (changeovers, break downs, stock outs) and making it value added. it is frequently free.

    The biggest waste that Taylor doesn’t address is the informational / intellectual waste. To assume that some guy from the front office knows the best way to do the job mocks humanity. It is actually why I like doing lean stuff more than six sigma (okay — i am a stats nerd who gets a charge out of a couple DOEs / year). When I wear my SS MBB hat I have to ‘come up with the answer.’ When I wear my ‘lean guy’ hat I get to help people take their job apart and watch them put them back together in a better way. I get to watch a people be creative. Lean is good.

  4. Eric-

    Thanks for your comment. Most everything in your first link refers to productivity and efficiency — but what about quality? My concern would be more about customers, quality, and continuous improvement. If employees “like” piece rate, then that’s fine… ok, so piece rate isn’t necessarily “exploitative”… but piece rate, even if tied to “good pieces per hour” (instead of “pieces per hour”) seems to go against quality.

    Even if the employee is paid only for good pieces, there is peer pressure on inspectors to lessen their standards, to let things slide so people can get paid, right?

    Eric — if you check back, how do you respond about the quality concerns with piecerate?

    Thanks for the links — I’d encourage everyone to check out the Fashion Incubator site, lots of good stuff there even if you’re not in the fashion/garment/clothing industry.


  5. Does anyone know if Lincoln Electric still works on a per-piece rate? There’s a Harvard Case Study that talks about the Lincoln model and difficulties expanding it’s application.

  6. The WSJ reporter thinks I’m an idiot, along with those of you who agree with me on Taylorism. Actually, I’m not sure what she disagreed with considering her not-so-compelling response to my email pointing her to the Lean Blog:

    She said:


    Words fail me.
    You just couldn’t be more wrong.
    Cynthia Crossen

  7. Lean Manufacturing is exceptional under certain cultures where the loyalty to the Organization matters and cultures have loyalty built in to their psyche for ages. Taylorism is more suited for the cultures that have “Whats in it for me ?” mindset (which is not a sin).

    Having lived in America and having seen an Organization in India that tried these concepts in eary 1990s and failed I feel that both the concepts are correct and it all boils down to the culture where in the process is being implemented.

    Neither of the solutions is a panecia and both have their own issues.

  8. Eric’s post re-done with links:


    You’re right that Taylorism is not dead. However, you’re a little off the mark about piece-rate. I think a lot depends on the particular industry, but I can point you to two resources that indicate piece-rate is not only effective, but is sometimes preferred by workers.

    Link 1


    Link 2

  9. Piece rate pay in healthcare leads to silo thinking and massive waste with increase cost to the customer.We have been trying to tear down silos for years at Thedacare which piece rate pay only builds up. One of the ways we have done it is to have a single bonus formula for everyone in the organization.If the work force collectively hits the target everybody gets the bonus.It has led to improved team work and staff being willing to work across departments to take waste out of patient value streams.
    But I would also agree with most of the bloggers,the Taylor method is alive and well in most of the healthcare organizations I visit.

  10. John, you’re right. And it’s a shame that Taylorism is alive and well in any industry, yet alone healthcare where the stakes are so high.

    Thanks for your comment and your leadership.

    John’s book for those who haven’t heard about it:


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