Segment from Tools of the Trade

Niggled and Timed

Author Nikil Saval has the story of the man whose obsession with efficiency changed the way Americans parsed the workday — from hours to seconds.

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BRIAN BALOGH: We’ll kick things off with an object you may not associate with the workplace per se. And yet, it’s had a huge impact on the way a whole lot of our workplaces are set up. That object– the stopwatch. Our story begins in the late 1870s, when a young man named Frederick Taylor became an apprentice in a Philadelphia steel factory.

MALE SPEAKER: It was in the factory that he first became acquainted with the basic mass manufacturing production process.

BRIAN BALOGH: Nikil Saval wrote about Taylor in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

NIKIL SAVAL: And Taylor was fascinated and repelled by it. He was fascinated by the process and he was repelled by the people doing it, namely the workers.

BRIAN BALOGH: Taylor had little patience for workers who did anything other than work. It drove him nuts when they did their jobs inefficiently or when they took place to talk to each other. You may not be surprised to hear that Taylor was eventually promoted to a supervisory position. And once promoted, he wasted no chance to make his frustration with his fellow employees known.

NIKIL SAVAL: Taylor became a kind of demon in this workplace. He was hated by the workers for just constantly berating them, for insisting that what they were doing could be done faster, their motions could be reduced. He was kind of coming into this sense that there was a process that needed to be instituted. And this process needed to be taken out of the hands of the workers themselves.

BRIAN BALOGH: Taylor was coming to understand that it was just human nature to want to slack off. What those workers needed was a system for setting goals, and incentives to achieve those goals. In 1898, Taylor was hired as a consultant by the Bethlehem Steel Company. That gave him, finally, a chance to put his system into practice. He came to call it “scientific management.”

NIKIL SAVAL: Taylor begin to outline the process of making steel. And he began to break it down into its constituent parts. And what he basically did was compared workers’ efficiency in doing so and tried to come up with the speediest time for doing a particular process, by measuring it with a stopwatch.

BRIAN BALOGH: With that stopwatch, Taylor could show that many workers doing one task each were much more efficient than if they each did a series of tasks. Where before, they would need to, say, walk around the factory floor to complete their tasks, the Taylor system anchored them to a single spot.


If you’ve ever seen the classic I Love Lucy assembly line scene, you’ve seen Taylorism in action.

LUCY: This is easy.

ETHEL: Yeah, we can handle this OK.

BRIAN BALOGH: Lucy and Ethel had been tasked with wrapping chocolates on an ever more crowded conveyor belt. And before long, they just can’t keep up.

ETHEL: I think we’re fighting a losing game.

BRIAN BALOGH: Under Taylor, Bethlehem Steel became that factory, without the humor or the calories. But in his mind, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. To the contrary, Taylor thought this actually would be liberating for workers. For the first time, Taylor thought, workers would have a real incentive to work harder, rather than to goof off or just talk to their fellow employees. And that’s because although stopwatch measurements would, in the end, be tied to pay.

NIKIL SAVAL: So a scientific manager would time each part of the process. And if a worker lagged, they would get paid less. If they beat the time, they would get paid more. Implicitly, the productivity of it would eventually guarantee not only individual workers more, but would guarantee productivity would lead to increased prosperity for all.

BRIAN BALOGH: A greater social good.


BRIAN BALOGH: Taylorism took off in the 19-teens. Neatly dressed scientific managers with stopwatches flooded across factory floors, producing a deluge of scientific data. And that data in turn produced a tier of office workers whose job it would be to crunch more data.

NIKIL SAVAL: The kind of logic of Taylorism is in its way unstoppable. Once you have this group of people who are themselves creating this work process and managing it, they too have to be managed in turn. And they too suddenly have this work process that is much more elaborate and also has to be rationalized.

BRIAN BALOGH: Dare I ask if they were exposed to the stopwatch themselves?

NIKIL SAVAL: They too actually endured the terror of the stopwatch, or they came to.

BRIAN BALOGH: “There are millions of unnecessary motions, and most of them are in the office.” This is from a lengthy manifesto on applying Taylorism to the office. It was written in 1917 by a Taylor disciple by the name of W.H. Leffingwell.

“Watch a clerk rushing through his work, throwing the papers in a disorderly heap as he goes. And then, when he’s finished, watch him spend a few minutes straightening things up. A trained expert will do as much as four or more untrained workers. Yet only half of the difference is in the speed, the other half being in the elimination of waste motions.”

This manifesto goes on to outline, in minute detail, the most efficient ways to tackle a whole range of office work and to design the office space itself– what kind of lighting to use, how to arrange the desks, even where to install the water fountains.

NIKIL SAVAL: What he would do is he’d observe people walking from their desks to the water cooler. And you would think, that’s about 100 feet, let’s say. And then he would calculate the amount of time that it took. And then he would imagine how many times a worker got water each day, and how many days a week they did that.

And he would just add that all up over the course of a year, and he’d think, they’ve walked, like, hundreds of miles. And this was the kind of mind that Taylorists had. They would think, well, there’s a lot of money being lost by the amount of time that people are spending goin–

BRIAN BALOGH: Time is money.

NIKIL SAVAL: Time is money.

BRIAN BALOGH: This, says Saval, is the period in which the modern office was born. Once, where a handful of clerks toiled away in dingy back rooms of factories, legions of office workers now sat in long, well-lit rows, where they could be monitored and timed. As you can imagine, Taylorism had its critics.

Workers fought back against the stopwatch, in at least one instance, going on strike to protest Taylorism itself. There were congressional hearings about whether or not the approach was dehumanizing. And in fact, what we know as human resources developed as an alternative to treating workers like cogs in a machine. And yet, Saval says, Taylorism is still very much alive and well in America today.

NIKIL SAVAL: Computers have vastly improved the ability to Taylorize anything. The fact that people who work in call centers have the time of their calls monitored, that they have to ask certain kinds of questions. They have to get responses within certain times.

BRIAN BALOGH: And they don’t even spend time dialing. As soon as they’re done, the next call is there queued up for them.

NIKIL SAVAL: Precisely. That is a perfect Taylorist system.

BRIAN BALOGH: The only thing more perfect would be a system where we didn’t need managers at all– a system where we all monitored ourselves with the help of, say, powerful machines that we carry in our back pockets or wear on our wrists. Sounding familiar?

NIKIL SAVAL: Think about the electronic monitoring of our exercise that we engage in today, with FitBits that convert into numbers all of our movements, how many steps we’ve taken each day, that our phones that have apps that remind us to run and how long to run. And we tend not to think of that as Taylorism, because there’s no person with a stopwatch telling us to do that. But in a way, there’s–

BRIAN BALOGH: There’s us. We’ve turned into Taylor.

NIKIL SAVAL: Right. There’s a more insidious Taylorism going on where we have these kind of scientific managers in our heads, where we feel that we must turn many aspects of our lives into more efficient processes that have to be managed.

BRIAN BALOGH: As someone who makes his living writing, Saval says that the scientific managers are definitely there in his head. He tracks how much time each day he spends reading, sending emails, and writing. And so I asked him, has he ever tried to abolish the stopwatch from his own life?

NIKIL SAVAL: The funny thing is, I don’t know if I can give it up, because the way it works for me is that I’m Taylorizing myself to preserve aspects of my life where I can just daydream and be bored. And I like to think that I’m invoking the spirit of Taylor in order to create moments in my life where I don’t have to do anything.

BRIAN BALOGH: Let me just be clear on this. You’re getting out the stopwatch in order to have time just to goof off.


BRIAN BALOGH: Thanks to Nikil Saval for helping us out with that story. He’s an editor at the magazine n plus 1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

(SINGING) In my cubicle, I am goofing around. Spinning in my chair, just looking at the ground.

ED AYERS: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, how Charles Darwin figures in the evolution of modern office furniture. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

(SINGING) I’ll play Tetris on my computer, I think. Get another cup of coffee to drink.