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THE ONE BEST WAY by Robert Kanigel


Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

by Robert Kanigel

Pub Date: May 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-670-86402-1
Publisher: Viking

 A circumspect biography of America's first efficiency expert, sensitive to both Taylor's limitations and his impact on the world. Even given the wholehearted, if naive, belief in science in the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor stood out in his devotion to the god of efficiency. Efforts to rationalize and speed up production were dubbed ``Taylorism'' because his claims were bolder, his conceptions more rigid, and his self-promotions more concerted than those of his contemporaries. He advocated piece-rate pay scales, determined through time studies establishing how long a job should take, with the details of each task prescribed by management to remove any exercise of judgment by workers. To explain the mind that envisioned this system, science writer Kanigel (The Man Who Knew Infinity, 1991) emphasizes the combination of privileged personal circumstances and ordinary mental capacities that made Taylor both a product of his environment and completely un-self-conscious of this fact. Far from a revolutionary or even creative thinker, Taylor remained firmly ensconced in the mainstream of his own wealthy, educated social class, never considering the possibility that his view of ``the lower sort'' could be a function of snobbery or ignorance. At a time when industrial expansion depended on increasing productivity and progressives in all areas promoted efficiency and expertise, Taylor became the guru of workplace reorganization. Kanigel is fair: He recognizes that Taylor understood his system as a utopia in which employers obtained higher production and employees higher pay. However, the attendant loss of human dignity and worker creativity was a steep price to pay, even if it was a function of narrow-mindedness rather than perniciousness. Kanigel's lively prose and sense of irony make this biography an enjoyable read. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)