The birth of “scientific” management

Read this last weekend, but didn’t get a chance to comment: online at The New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviews Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Lepore digs into the origins of “scientific” management approaches that emerged in the early 20th century, aiming to wring the maximum productivity out of every worker. The field was essentially created out of whole cloth by one Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made up data, trafficked in racist stereotypes, treated industrial workers like livestock to be trained, and charged companies ridiculous fees for the service:

How did Taylor arrive at forty-seven and a half tons [as the amount of iron one man could load in a day] for Bethlehem Steel? He chose twelve “large, powerful Hungarians,” observed them for an hour, and calculated that, at the rate they were working, they were loading twenty-four tons of pig iron per man per day. Then he handpicked ten men and dared them to load sixteen and a half tons as fast as they could. They managed to do it in fourteen minutes; this yields a rate of seventy-one tons per man per ten-hour day. Taylor inexplicably rounded up the number to seventy-five. To get to forty-seven and a half, he reduced seventy-five by about forty per cent, claiming that this represented a work-to-rest ratio of the “law of heavy laboring.” Workers who protested the new standards were fired.

Cheaper by the Dozen first-edition cover. Image from Wikipedia.

The saner practitioners of scientific management turn out to be none other than Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, whose efficiency-oriented family life is chronicled in Cheaper by the Dozen, a book I loved in about sixth grade. What doesn’t come through in the book is that Lillian was a substantial contributor to Frank’s thinking and writing about worker efficiency, and may have ghostwritten one or more of his books. This moment, I think, sounds like the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth I know from the CBTD:

Onstage, Frank was challenged by Emma Goldman. He was pointing to a chart illustrating the hierarchical relationship between the foreman and the worker. “There is nothing in scientific management for the workman,” Goldman shouted. “The only scheme is to have the workman support the loafers on top of him.” Lillian leaned over and whispered something to Frank, who cheerfully turned the chart upside down.

“Management,” as a separate academic discipline has always struck me as basically bunk. But the Gilbreths, at least, seem to have had legitimately good intentions.