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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Revisiting Taylorism at the Watertown Arsenal

Scientific management is alive and well in many board rooms

Published: Monday, June 10, 2013 - 11:25

There is much to be learned from history. Lately, I’ve been researching Frederick Winslow Taylor and scientific management. Better known as Taylorism, scientific management was popular from the early 1900s to the 1930s. The lessons and future impact of his efforts still drives how we design and perceive work today—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Let’s start by giving kudos to Taylor for the work he did. One reader of these columns said he “rocked the world he lived in,” especially considering that at the time there were no studies on human behavior, the workforce was uneducated, the industrial revolution was at its peak, and the conventional management approach was command and control. These are salient points that we should all keep in mind when looking back at history. Given all that, we’d still like to be able to look back and see how far we’ve come in the last century.

So: How far have we really come since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and scientific management?

Probably the most complete research on Taylor’s scientific management was done by Hugh Aitken in the book, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, 1908–1915 (Princeton University Press, 1985). Aitken describes Taylorism like this: “The essential core of scientific management, regarded as a philosophy, was the idea that human activity could be measured, analyzed, and controlled by techniques analogous to those that proved successful when applied to physical objects.” Taylor and his cohorts were out to solve problems of industrial production but not much else.

We have not moved away much from the industrial production mindset. Our collective aim still seems rather myopic in the quest to do more—with less. However, we have more financial rigor and information technology that create more of an illusion of progress than breakthrough thinking. Realistically, finance and technology have only added to the complexity of organizations, and therefore added costs.

Taylor believed that workers were “soldiering,” meaning that they were not working as hard as they could. To rectify the situation, Taylor would determine an optimal pace of work by conducting a job analysis and, later, a time study. The job analysis would look at the job of, for example, a machinist and identify what was “waste” and “nonwaste” motions. Under normal circumstances, a machinist working a lathe would sharpen his own tool. Taylor didn’t see it this way; he saw tool-sharpening as a separate job. And thus the functional separation of work was born.

The functional separation of work creates one of the biggest design problems for work today. Organizational structures the world over separate operations, marketing, finance, information technology, human resources, and other functions. Sometimes there’s a good reason to do this, but more often functional design is invisible to management because it’s carried over from previous management regimes. More specialists are hired and silos created as the work continues to be separated; finding someone who understands the end-to-end system is rare. Organizational restructures are done to alleviate the problems of organizational separation, but these changes lack the effective principles for redesign that come from studying an organization as a system.

With Taylorism, after a job analysis was completed, a time study was the next element. Time studies were calculated as the sum of all machine times and handling times (or setup times). Interestingly, these calculations were not really all that “scientific.” At Watertown Arsenal there were “allowances” of 25 percent to 75 percent that were added to both the handling time and machine time to allow for things like hardness of metal, fatigue, and interruptions. These allowances were more arbitrary and less scientific.

Completing job and time studies led to standardization. Standardization allowed management to dictate a standard work pace. Inspecting the standardized work and pace became fundamental elements of the Taylor system. This in turn created new jobs for management and specialists to “help” the worker.

Standardization and inspection have become permanent parts of today’s organizations. Because quality can’t be inspected into a product in manufacturing or service, any standardization adopted by service organizations can’t allow for the variability that customers bring. Seemingly, we have blindly adopted Taylorism into today’s organizations.

Watertown Arsenal became an important touchstone to the history of scientific management. A strike ensued at the Arsenal that eventually led to the U.S. Congress banning Taylorism in government contracts. The strike occurred when a time study was being conducted on a molder in a foundry. He objected when the study didn’t fairly represent the work (in the molder’s opinion). The molders met privately and decided that Taylor’s scientific management was not for them.

The strike led to a series of interviews and testimonies from management and workers. Managers vehemently defended Taylorism in their testimonies and offered both sketchy and solid proof that scientific management worked. Workers didn’t see as much improvement, and some (surprisingly) even complained they were making more money even though their output was less.

Regardless of who was right, workers felt completely alienated by Taylorism. In the “spirit of leaving our brains at the door,” a machinist is quoted as saying, “This system is wrong, because we want our heads left on us.” Worker participation in decision-making had been removed in put in the hands of management.

Sadly, too many people in management today still view workers as expenses on income statements. In my April 2013 QD column, “Just Follow the Procedure,” I described the plight of the American worker, and it doesn’t seem like much has changed since the days of Frederick Taylor and scientific management. The attitude toward workers is one of distrust; management and specialists know best. The design of work (i.e., functional separation of work) and management’s view of workers still dictate performance.

In Deming’s Profound Changes (Prentice Hall, 1995), authors Kenneth Delavigne and Daniel Robertson believe that scientific management succeeded in its time by “helping transform American industry from craft production to mass production.” However, as time has passed, some of the good of Taylor has morphed into what Delavigne and Robertson call “Neo-Taylorism” that hits at the heart of American competitiveness and serves as more of “a self-destructive philosophy.”

I was fortunate enough to speak recently with Dan Robertson. He shared with me the story of a university professor asking him when he might be updating Deming’s Profound Changes to a second edition. Robertson’s response was, “There is nothing to update.” The problems of Neo-Taylorism haven’t changed since Delavigne and Robertson wrote their book close to 20 years ago.

The latest improvement schemes of today have not addressed the perspective problems in management. Management problems have been ignored or placed in the “too hard” bucket. Collectively, Americans are paying the price in a lack of competitiveness, loss of profit, unemployment, and ruining of lives. Breaking the cycle requires that we learn from the past; until this is done, the cycle of despair will continue to turn.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also does two podcasts: The Deming Institute Podcast and The Effective Executive podcast. 


My 2 cents worth

My father worked at the Watertown Arsenal starting in 1940. When I was young, I would hear all the stories of his early supervisors who worked under the "Taylor Regime"

 There was universal hatred for Frederik Taylor and stories about the big drinking bash after work circa 1915 to celebrate his death and how he did the right thing by dying, No one had a good word for him down the ranks.

Workers at Watertown Arsenal 1940

Only just picked this up after Googling 'Workers at Watertown Arsenal 1940'.  My father was a machinist there in 1940.  Do you know where I can find more information or photos during this time?

Many thanks in advance!

Watertown Arsenal

Hi Fast Eddie,

I am working on a visual project about the Watertown Arsenal where I am gathering information from past workers. I would love to talk to you or your dad if possible. 

Evidence - Its in your system


Thanks for the comment.

Taylor doesn't recognize division of labor from scientific management because he assumed the division of labor to be preexisting.  Let's not confuse Taylor's principle of analysis (scientific management) with a principle of action (division of labor).  Taylor focused on work processes (of his era), he ignored indirect and managerial processes as evidence at Watertown Arsenal.

Technology can enable work, the question is, does it?  Evidence - go to a contact center (almost any), take a demand from a customer and see how many IT systems it takes to complete the work end-to-end.  You would be horrified, I have seen up to 17 different IT systems here in the States. Is that enabling?

Service design - carry over from previous regimes is the comment you get back from management when you ask them why they have 17 different systems and A answer you will get is " I inherited it."  This goes for any other service design I have seen.  Best evidence - go to any organization and see the functional separation of sales, operations, finance, etc.  They are all designed the same - why is it so?  There is an unconscious acceptance of organizational design.

Management's attitude of workers often appears to be one of trust, but management seeks compliance to their dictates through an inspection bureaucracy that you (Scott) recognize as problematic here in the US.  Workers rarely have the right to make decisions as management dictates things like you can give a $50 credit but anything higher has to go to varying levels of management approval.  So, yes there is distrust.  


Wow! That's a heavy

Wow! That's a heavy conclusion!

"Collectively, Americans are paying the price in a lack of competitiveness, loss of profit, unemployment, and ruining of lives."

All because of Frederick Taylor?

Functional separation of work did not begin with Taylor. It goes back at least to hunter/gatherer societies and has been known since 1776 as the division of labor.

This article makes some sweeping statements with little evidence:

  1. Does the author believe that technology has not realistically allowed us to do more with less? Did I misunderstand that.
  2. Functional separation of work creates one of the biggest design problems for work today? And it exists only because management carries it over from previous regimes? What is the evidence for this?
  3. Management's attitude toward workers today is one of distrust? Not in my experience.

Perhaps a better place to look for the cause of a lack of competitiveness and unemployment is the distance we've gotten away from the principles of free-market economics, with crony capitalism, trade-union protectionism, and the regulatory burden of a 5,000-page federal tax code.