Page Navigation - Go to: site index | start of page content | links to sections in this story | links to related material | story theme menu | text only version of scene
Stories about the lives we've made

story:Studying work

scene:The Advocates: Taylor, Ford and the Gilbreths

The Advocates: Taylor, Ford and the Gilbreths
Today we accept that production lines are a central feature of contemporary forms of work. Here we look at how four individuals began the process of measuring and standardising the methods of work to increase productivity and efficiency.
Images with this text:
Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth in a car full of children.
Frederick Taylor
In 1942 the 7,176-ton SS Frederick W. Taylor was launched off the Maine coast. Identical to hundreds of other ships that the United States suddenly needed now that it was at war, it had been built not by experienced shipbuilders but by former sharecroppers who had been taught how to weld in a mere 90 days. The ship had been named in honour of the man whose methods had made its quick construction possible.
No man in the history of American industry has made a larger contribution to genuine cooperation and juster human relations than did Frederick Winslow Taylor,' wrote journalist Ida Tarbell in 1924. 'He is one of the few - very few - creative geniuses of our time.' What had Taylor achieved that deserved such an accolade? The answer lies in the meaning of the phrase that will forever be associated with his name: 'scientific management'.
Images with this text:
F.W. Taylor. A single-minded and controversial character, F.W. Taylor's scientific management changed the world of work forever.
'Muckraking' journalist Ida Tarbell (1857-1944), who campaigned against 'the open disregard of decent ethical business practices by capitalists.'.
Taylor's analysis
When Taylor began his investigations in the 1870s, a typical manager had very little contact with the minutiae of factory life. His responsibilities were limited to maintaining workshop discipline and ensuring weekly production quotas. Workers were at liberty to use whatever tools they had and employ whichever methods suited their own style of work. As long as the work got done, everyone was happy.
It was while working at the Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia that Taylor became dissatisfied with the ad hoc procedures that governed operations in the factory. He was convinced that there was 'one best way' of working that maximised efficiency: 'And this one best method and best implementation can only be discovered or developed through scientific study and analysis...This involves the gradual substitution of science for 'rule of thumb' throughout the mechanical arts.'The first problem he directed his attention to was the cutting of steel. Taylor devised a series of meticulous experiments to determine the most efficient method. He later turned his attention to shovelling coal. After a period of study, he was able to design a shovel that would allow its user to work all day.
But it was early in 1899 that Taylor began the experiments that would make him famous. A glut in the market had allowed the Bethlehem Iron Works to accumulate 10,000 tons of pig iron. The company reckoned that one man working all day could shift thirteen tons of the 32-inch-long grey iron bars. Taylor believed he could improve on this figure by introducing 'piece rates' - payment by unit rather than time.
One worker, Henry Noll, was particularly motivated to work hard as he was at that time engaged in building a house for himself. Being able to shift a heroic 47 tons of pig iron a day meant he was taking home $1.85 compared to the $1.15 his fellow labourers managed. Taylor recounted this story for years to come.
Images with this text:
A steel-cutting saw in 1866. Taylor devised a series of meticulous experiments to determine the most efficient method for cutting steel.
Bethlehem Iron Works, 1886. In 1899 Taylor began his famous experiments on pig-iron handling at the Bethlehem Iron Works.
Scientific management
The main elements of scientific management are time studies using stopwatches and slide rules; the standardisation of planning, tools and working methods; and the division of labour.
Taylor devised four principles of management: the development of a true science; the scientific selection of the workman; the scientific education and development of the workman; and intimate and friendly cooperation between the management and the workers.
Perhaps the key idea of scientific management, and the one that has drawn the most criticism, was the concept of task allocation. This was the theory that breaking work into smaller and smaller tasks allows the determination of the optimum means of performing that task. Taylor believed that 'The task is always so regulated that the man who is well suited to his job will thrive while working at this rate during a long term of years and grow happier and more prosperous, instead of being overworked.'
Nevertheless, Taylor's experiments were almost immediately criticised. 'This experiment of Doctor Taylor, in ascertaining with scientific accuracy the breaking point of seven out of eight laborers,' wrote Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor in 1911, 'presents novelty only in its cold-bloodedness and its endeavor to transfer mathematical observations of the strength of metals to those of the strength of men's muscles and spirit.'
According to Gompers, the system made 'every man merely a cog or a nut or a pin in a big machine with no need to employ more than a few mechanical motions.' The allocation of work 'specifying not only what is to be done but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it' allowed little scope for the individual worker to excel or even think.
In 1911 Taylorism suffered a setback when the workers at Watertown Federal Arsenal went on strike. The federal courts ruled that time study was biased, inaccurate and unscientific. It was ruled illegal for the system to be used on government contracts.
Images with this text:
A man is taking notes while studying a worker in action. Scientific management involved time studies using stopwatches and slide rules, the standardisation of tools and methods, and the division of labour.
Samuel Grompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, casting his ballot in his home district. According to labour leader Samuel Gompers, Taylorism made 'every man merely a cog or a nut or a pin in a big machine '.
View of a steel worker who later went on strike over more pay. Scientific management is but a chapter in the tortuous story of the relationship between capitalism and labour.
Henry Ford's assembly line
Legend has it that it was while watching a conveyor belt of moving animal carcasses in a Chicago slaughterhouse that Henry Ford had the idea for a new production process for his motor cars: 'If they can kill pigs and cows that way, we can build cars that way.' When the Ford Motor Company started in 1903, it took one man 12.5 hours to build a single automobile. Ten years later, the company's Detroit factory was producing 230,000 cars a year.
How had this enormous leap in productivity been achieved? Ford divided the labour required to build the car into innumerable tiny steps. He then placed the entire construction operation onto a moving conveyor belt. One man would now be responsible for fixing the petrol tank to the chassis, say; another would attach a wheel. In this way, the assembly line could churn out a new car every 90 minutes.
The production assembly line required an exact management of time. Every component of the car had a small but crucial window of opportunity during which it was to be fixed to the product. The timing of the process was so important that it could no longer be left to the foreman.
Taylor and Ford's methods raised production, cut costs and - most controversially - reduced the reliance on the skill of an individual worker. 'Scientific management is a good scavenger,' wrote Helen Marot in her 1914 book American Labor Unions. 'It is out for every scrap of trade knowledge. Following the machine, it proposes to clean up the last vestige of craftsmanship and to put the shipshape touches to modern industry. There are to be no chance bits of capital lying around loose in the hands of this man and that when the efficiency engineers have finished their job.'
The difference between the two systems was that the Fordist assembly line could be used in a few key industries, but Taylorism was almost universally applicable. By 1917, scientific management procedures had been applied to a wide range of industrial processes that included bricklaying, canning, bleaching and dyeing, bookbinding, publishing and lithography, and wire weaving, among others.
Today, everything from dentistry to banking to the making of hotel beds has been revolutionised by Taylor's ideas about the scientific management of work.
Images with this text:
Henry Ford, American automobile engineer and manufacturer, 1908.
Disassembly line - a slaughterhouse in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1873. The apparently unpromising slaughterhouse disassembly line provided Ford with the inspiration for his motor-car assembly line.
Assembly line at the Model T Ford factory at Highland Park in 1913. The assembly line remains one of the greatest icons of the industrial world.
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth
In 1885, on the first day of his job, apprentice Frank Gilbreth was surprised to learn that bricklaying was not a particularly standardised trade. From that day, so the story goes, he became determined to increase the efficiency of a trade that had been functioning for millennia.
Among his many innovations was an adjustable scaffold that made the bricklayer's life much easier by reducing effort required to bend down and pick up each brick. By decreasing the number of motions needed to lay bricks from eighteen to five, Gilbreth claimed to have increased a skilled man's output from 175 to 550 bricks laid per hour.
Unlike Taylor, however, Gilbreth was interested not so much in the timings of a production process as in its movements. His principal aim was to eliminate unnecessary and inefficient motions.
By the time he met Taylor in 1907, Gilbreth was a successful businessman with his own construction company. Soon thereafter he devoted himself entirely to scientific management and, together with his wife Lillian, developed chronophotography - a way of studying the movements involved in work.
An exuberant and single-minded man, Frank Gilbreth determined the right way to button his shirt and take a bath. Nor were the couple's twelve children spared the household efficiency regime. All of them were obliged to write their initials on charts of timed tasks every day.
After Frank's death, Lillian Gilbreth extended the work into the home in an effort to find the 'one best way' to perform household chores. She also worked on assisting the handicapped; for instance, she designed an ideal kitchen layout for a person afflicted with heart disease.
Images with this text:
The Gilbreths' work inspired British scientific-management pioneers such as Sir Charles Renold and Miss Anne Shaw. This image was taken at a reception held in honour of Dr Lillian Gilbreth on 27 July 1949 and shows Sir Charles Renold, Dr Lillian Gilbreth and Miss Anne Shaw.
The Gilbreths in 'foolish carriage'. From Lillian Gilbreth's autobiography As I Remember, published 1998.
A form on the metrics of the housewife. Lillian Gilbreth took motion study from the factory into the home - in this case, into the kitchen.
Motion study
Frank and his wife Lillian introduced the 'chronocyclegraph' into the study of work. Their method involved using photographs to analyse a particular job into its fundamental elements. These elements (later called 'therbligs' - 'Gilbreth' spelled backwards) were isolated by means of a camera and a timing device that, when the film was exposed, indicated the intervals of time that had elapsed. The Gilbreths coined the term 'motion study' to distinguish their work from 'time study'.
Lights that flashed 20 times a second were placed on those parts of a worker's body that were to be photographed. The camera's shutter was opened at the beginning of the work cycle and closed at the end. A tear-shaped spot of light, produced by the lights switching on quickly but off slowly, indicated the direction of movement. A stereoscopic camera created a three-dimensional image when viewed through a stereoscope.
Finally, the photographic traces were used to build wire models. Irregularities revealed changes in speed and indicated hesitations and inefficiencies. The cleanest, most compact and fluid model was taken to be the standard process. This ideal was then taught to the other workers.
Hundreds of different processes were photographed, including those involved in typing, stacking boxes, packing pears, making buttons and even transferring bacterial cultures in laboratories. Motion study reduced the 115 steps required by a towel-folding process to just 16.
Images with this text:
A chronoscope made by the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP) in London. It was used to measure reaction times in psychological tests.
Chronophotography suggested that irregular and unnecessary movements might be an important cause of industrial inefficiency. This image shows the movements of an investigator covering chocolates.
This image shows the movements of an experienced worker with a different type of movement.

Resource Descriptions

Learning Module
Learning Module