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Friedrich von Gottl-Ottlilienfeld, "Fordism" (1926)

Both “Taylorism,” Frederick W. Taylor’s theory of industrial rationalization and the later system of “Fordism” (the breaking down of work processes into standardized assembly line manufacturing combined with comparatively high wages) met with great interest in Germany. Despite widespread skepticism towards Fordism – which existed among both entrepreneurs and labor union representatives – rationalization was generally seen as a necessity. Moreover, its policy of paying a relatively high, “living wage” was attractive to Social Democrats and labor union leaders in particular. One of its enthusiastic supporters was the author of this text, Austrian born political economist Friedrich von Gottl-Ottlilienfeld (1868-1958), who became one of the most influential theorists of the rationalization movement in the 1920s.

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While the creativity of Fordist methods is manifest on the level of immense systems of plants taken together, the Taylor system is meant for exclusive application to single plants that have already been established and organized. The goal of the latter is to improve plant operations in a single, one-sided fashion—namely, through technical refinements in the way work is performed, that is, in the execution of jobs in the plant. The basic idea of the system derives from its focus on regular drudge work: loading iron ingots, shoveling ore, etc. The story of Schmidt, the valiant ore shoveler, continues to circulate through the world making propaganda for the Taylor system.

For [Frederick Winslow] Taylor, the point of departure lies in plant management. That is always an important matter. A plant can be organized in this way or that and as a consequence be capable of greater or lesser productive potential, since everything finally depends on how able the directors and employees are in getting something out of it; or, more precisely, on what the administration and the workforce are able to wring from the plant once they seriously get down to work. That obviously depends on the output potential of human action, on how it is integrated in its manifold types and forms into the chain of effects represented by the plant. Now Taylor attempts to get the most out of it from the outset by aiming at the highest possible performance, toward which end those involved are expected to give their best. Maximum performance, however, is a goal that can be pursued in a wide variety of ways. The Taylor system represents only one of them! This striving for maximum performance, a very significant goal, I have called Taylorism, and it has filled the soul of every capable plant manager since long before Taylor. Taylor, however, has worked more effectively in its favor than anyone before; above all he has sharpened the critical eye focused on plant operations and preached the necessity of a regular stock-taking to management. No one but he, that is, can claim to have cultivated a science of work, the promotion of which is incumbent upon those branches of scientific research where the forms of expertise associated with the discipline intersect.

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Maximum performance reaches its peak in the plants of the Ford Motor Company. I do not mean so much the mathematical success that can be measured in the output potential of the individual worker, which may still be subject to increase by Taylorism. But the completely different approach adopted by Ford is infinitely more fruitful in terms of overall success. Here that “supreme individual potential,” of which Count [Ferdinand] Degenfeld-Schonburg speaks in his instructive book, is transmitted to the whole plant; it is transmitted down from the top—which in this case is Henry Ford. [Hugo] Münsterberg’s representation of the “spirit of individual initiative at the margins” as one of the characteristic features of Americanism is well known; and the Ford plants themselves do in fact “Americanize” their numerous acquisitions, or they get rid of them—both principles quite contrary to Taylorism. But what radiates more strongly from the top—in absolute contrast to Taylorism—is the vital spirit of the personality! It blows through the whole gigantic operation and draws every last worker into its wake.

There are, for example, no departments at Ford, nor any permanent, titled positions. Someone needs only to deliver the proof that he, in some way or another beneficial to the indefatigable completion of the whole, knows how to produce a result, and he has obtained a position for himself and will be better paid for it. Departmental responsibilities do not exist; no one, however, not even the last drudge worker, is deprived of the purely human responsibility for what he does and does not do. There is no coordination of the lines of command of any kind, not a trace of the drab horror of a conventional office; a personnel office serves as the registry for the plant and that is all. Only the top management has a staff, such as the executive general staff for the really big issues. The only ones who hold their own up there are those who do not turn into narrow-minded experts; for what Ford wants to say, wants to believe, is this: that people already have the best solutions for everything in their heads. Nor could a more unpardonable offense to the spirit of the Ford plant be conceived. Nothing is already or ever will be fully developed and perfect in Henry Ford’s eyes! He is dynamism personified. It is truly as if this most American of all industrial organizations were the intellectual embodiment of activism, of, strictly speaking, the meliorism of William James.

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