Our culture’s mania for efficiency, which seems so ubiquitous that it might as well have been written into the Declaration of Independence, actually got rolling only a century ago. It started somewhat inauspiciously with pig-iron, a strong back and a man with a stopwatch.
The man with the stopwatch was Fredrick Taylor and his 1911 treatise “The Principles of Scientific Management,” described some of his earliest efforts at increasing worker efficiency. Taylor believed that “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. The duty of enforcing this adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests on management alone.” In support of his theory he often told story of a man he called Schmidt who worked ten hours a day, six days a week loading 92 pound pig iron ingots onto waiting railroad cars.
When Taylor met “Schmidt” the man was loading 12.5 tons per day and earning 1.15 dollars a day. Believing that there was “one right way” to do— everything— Taylor demanded that “Schmidt” perform the task of loading ingots precisely as he was told. “Now pick up that pig and walk. Now sit down and rest.” In Taylor’s telling, “Schmidt’s” production rose from 12.5 tons of pig iron loaded per day to 47 tons a day. “Schmidt’s” pay also went up, rising from 70 cents 1.85 dollars a day.
When the novelist Upton Sinclair, read about this experiment, he noted that Schmidt was offered a 61 percent wage increase in return for a 362 percent increase in work. There were other problems as well. Taylor gave varying accounts of the “Schmidt” episode over the years, altering details in ways that flattered the beliefs of the audience he was addressing. It also turned out that his “experiment” wasn’t at all scientific. One account of Taylor’s effort at the Bethlehem Steel Works, published at the time, told of a group of “Hungarians” who were asked to be part of the Taylor’s experiment but refused to participate. At Taylor’s request, the men were fired. A second call for volunteers went out and five laborers responded. The famous “Pig-Iron Experiment” lasted just five days and four of the five men quit before it was over. Schmidt as the only man to complete Taylor’s experiment. It later came out that the only man to complete Taylor’s experiment was a actually a man named Henry Noll whom Taylor often described as being both stubborn and tight-fisted with money. In later years, Taylor admitted that a large part of Noll’s motivation came from the fact that he was was building a house and “needed money.”
This strange and not very persuasive tale (and others like it) became the seeds from which an entire an “Efficiency Industry” grew. Since Taylor’s time, management consultants and “efficiency experts” have become permanent features of the American economy. The belief that there was “one right way” to do any job and that it was management’s duty to enforce that method upon its workers became an article of the businessman’s faith. Although Taylor sometimes protested that his methods were to be used to find the most fastest and “most equitable” rate of work, factory owners were most interested in the first part of that equation and much less concerned with the second. Taylor was never alone in his desire to wring greater productivity out of the American worker. His chief rivals were Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their concept of the Motion Study. The Gilbreths filmed the activities of workers and then analyzed their movements grouping them into units they called “therbligs” (this was “Gilbreth” spelled backward with the “th” transposed). All of the motions of the human hand, for example, could be reduced into 17 distinct “therbligs.” It says something about the American character that when Frank and Lillian’s son, Frank Junior, published a memoir of growing up in the Gilbreth house (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) it became a best-seller. Hollywood also found the book’s account of Frank and Lillian using their large family as guinea pigs in efficiency experiments to be “charming.” The film based on the book went on to gross four and a half million dollars at the box office.
Early 20th century time and motion gurus demanded that workers surrender control over how they did their work. The financial benefits accruing from the resulting increases in efficiency went, mostly, into the factory-owners’ pocket’s. Unions and Trade Associations fought “Taylorism” aggressively winning occasional battles, one success was a 1915 law that prohibited the use of “time measuring” devices to measure worker performance in government facilities. The efficiency experts, however, won the war. With their triumph came an almost sacramental faith in the value of “efficiency” Not only was efficiency seen to be good in the practical sense (more tons of pig-iron loaded per day) but it was also elevated to the status of a moral virtue. In the decades following the 1960′s and 1970′s this faith in efficiency would be used as the basis for a major expansion of control over American workers that would Taylor’s faith in “enforced cooperation” to a terrifying new level.