“Efficiency is the hope of democracy.”
That was the gospel according to Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of the Scientific Management movement that swept America early in the 20th century.
Taylor was absolutely convinced that America could work smarter, better, and faster. And he was just the man who could make it happen.
In his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor explained that all human action could be subdivided into 18 different motions. The pathway to efficiency was to identify the exact sequence of motions that would yield the best results in the shortest time.
There was One Best Way to shovel coal, transport a pile of pig iron, and turn on a light switch. Every other approach was a waste of valuable time and energy.
One of Taylor’s associates even documented “15 ways to kiss more efficiently,” the outcome of numerous motion studies. We may presume that most, if not all, of the couples in the study were considerably less interested in the efficiency of their kisses than the researchers were.
Taylor stood for hours in America’s workplaces with a stopwatch and slide rule in hand. Every task was broken into segments 1/100 of a minute long.
After his scientific analysis he would confidently tell people how to do their jobs.
He expressed little hope, however, that most workers could comprehend even simple tasks. He famously described iron workers as “dumb as dray horses.” A first-class man, as Taylor defined him, was capable of producing much more work. If only he could be compelled to stop loafing.
It was up to management, he proclaimed, to embrace his scientifically proven methods and force the rank and file to become radically efficient.
As one might expect, senior leaders tended to applaud Taylor. At last – someone who could prove, scientifically, that most of their workers were slackers. Scientific Management became the most important business book of the first half of the last century, and influenced every major American business school.
Workers, needless to say, were less enthusiastic about being compared to dray horses, not to mention being schooled in the One Best Way to sweep a floor.
Taylor’s influence gave birth to the field of industrial engineering. That’s a positive legacy.
But his workplace methods ultimately proved to be unworkable and even downright ludicrous – for a very simple reason: The men and women who go to work every day in the boiler rooms, boardrooms, factories, farms, kitchens, and offices of the world are not mere extensions of the machines they use.
We are all unique image-bearers of the One who crafted us.
And that means there is deep mystery concerning who we are and how we do things. Freedom is what makes our daily routines a joy and not mere drudgery. Without freedom, there can’t be love. And without love, life is not worth living.
From time to time, Christian teachers have succumbed to Taylorism. In order to “be all we can be” for the Lord, they specify how many minutes we should pray every day and how many chapters of the Bible we should read. Kids in church programs are urged to keep running tallies of how many verses they have memorized and how many times they have shared their faith.
Those are all good things. But if pursued with the wrong spirit – efficiently, obsessively, numerically – the outcome is almost always spiritual sterility.
In other words, we’re not called to be smarter, better, and faster for Jesus. More than one spiritual inquirer has concluded, “If that’s all Christianity is, count me out.”
Workplace philosophers may wax poetic about the goodness of eliminating waste, reducing unnecessary motion, and getting more done in less time. But these do not seem to be God’s highest priorities.
Long before Scientific Management, God actually proposed a two-step strategy to deepen our flourishing as human beings. It’s found in Psalm 46:10:
Know that God is God.
No special training or education is necessary.
All that’s required is a willingness to stop – to quietly give up thinking about all the other things you could be doing right now.
That’s because you’ll already be doing the single most important thing that you will do all day.