In 1911, A Genius Revealed A Forgotten Science Of How To Be 50x More Productive Without Working More Hours
Author’s Note: This article is part of a series on productivity that was researched and written over hundreds of hours (yeah, I know, I’m fun at parties) using the blockbuster philosophy. Below are the three other articles in the series:
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The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.
Peter Drucker, one of the most respected management thinkers in history, stated these words at the close of the 20th century.
The significance of this quote cannot be overstated.
Drucker isn’t just talking about 50x productivity for the smartest people. He’s talking about 50x productivity on average for an entire society. It’s profound historically. It’s profound personally. It’s profound societally.
Historical Profundity: The sudden rise in worker productivity is a historical anomaly. Drucker says, “For hundreds of years there had been no increase in the ability of workers to turn out goods or to move goods.”
Personal Profundity: Imagine if you could do an entire week’s work in less than an hour. Or imagine if you could work a full work week, but got 50x the results of everyone else? It would catapult your career — your salary, your impact, your reputation, your self-confidence.
Societal Profundity: Over the long run, productivity determines what governments and societies adopt. If productivity drops for too long, revolutions happen. If productivity goes up, the system stays because workers enjoy higher incomes and more leisure time. Drucker believes that had the productivity revolution not happened, capitalism may have fallen to communism during the Great Depression.
Yet, something very odd happened in the last 50 years.
At the exact point you’d expect another 50x increase in productivity because of computers, there was stagnation in the United States…
…and in other developed countries…
The oddness of this surprise is captured in the following quote by a Nobel laureate economist:
You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.
—Nobel laureate Robert Solow
What’s going on here?
A single employee with a laptop can do more than a roomful of people from the 1960s. Yet, we aren’t seeing this in the productivity data.
How is it that we make one of the most significant shifts in history and don’t see big, undeniable results from it?
This surprising phenomenon is known as the productivity paradox.
This paradox led Drucker to issue a challenge for our generation…
The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.
When I first read these words in 2018, I was shocked and inspired. So, I decided to dive deeper…
Millions Of Articles On Shallow Productivity Hacks… But Almost None On 50X Productivity
My first surprise was this:
There are hundreds of millions of pages on the Internet that mention productivity. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry of articles, books, and videos on productivity by productivity gurus.
Yet, most people into productivity (including myself) had never heard of the most important breakthrough in the history of productivity or the person behind it.
It’s like collectively learning a philosophy (scientific method) or discovering a technology (steam engine) that changes everything and then removing it from the history books and subsequently forgetting about it.
So, I became hooked. I wanted to understand why the 50x shift happened in the first place and how to replicate it with knowledge work instead of just manual work. After all, who doesn’t want a 50x productivity boost?
Furthermore, we can see the consequences of the recent productivity stagnation in many areas of politics and culture—from social rifts between classes to key issues in elections. When the pie isn’t growing, people fiercely fight to divvy up what’s left and tear down existing institutions. So, increasing productivity is an important social issue as well.
Naively, I thought I would find an answer quickly and write an article about it. But, as I dove deeper into the literature on knowledge work productivity, I realized that the topic was still unsolved.
Therefore, rather than rushing something out, I went on a multi-year research journey through dozens of academic articles and books. Some of my favorite being:
Knowledge Work Factory by William Heitman
America’s Assembly Line by David Nye
Principles Of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor
Competitive Advantage by Michael Porter
The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
The Rise Of The Knowledge Society by Peter Drucker
The One Best Way by Robert Kanigel
My Life And Work by Henry Ford
Knowledge Worker Productivity by Peter Drucker
By the end, I found a surprisingly simple 4-step framework (backed by more than 100 years of proof) that could be applied to knowledge work. But, before we understand the framework, it’s critical to first understand the fascinating person behind it along with the process he used to discover it…
A Forgotten Thinker, Who Started Off As a Machine Shop Laborer, Sparked The Productivity Revolution
If you read Drucker, there is no confusion about the root cause of the productivity revolution. It all goes back to one person—Frederick Winslow Taylor.
In the decade after Frederick Winslow Taylor first looked at work and studied it, the productivity of the manual worker began its unprecedented rise… On this achievement rest all of the economic and social gains of the 20th century.
Drucker not only considers Taylor to be the creator of the science of management, he sees him as one of the three most important “makers of the modern world.” In fact, he attributes almost all of the important management innovations in the last century (industrial engineering, work enrichment, job rotation, assembly line, total quality management, quality circle, continuous improvement, and lean manufacturing) back to Taylor.
Drucker is not alone in his assessment. In 1977, Taylor was ranked the #1 contributor ever to management thought and practice by a panel of business and economics historians beating out the likes of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Alfred Sloan, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. Similarly, when the Academy Of Management, the academic association for the management discipline, was given the same task, Taylor again topped the list. To put his lead in perspective, Taylor had 31 first-place votes. The next person down had three.
Furthermore, Taylor was a celebrity in his own era. According to his biographer:
At the peak of his celebrity in the early twentieth century, Taylor gave lectures around the country and was as famous as Edison or Ford.
To understand why Taylor was so widely known and respected, we need to look back at his life, which is eccentric enough to be a Hollywood script…
Taylor was born in 1856 and brought up as an aristocrat. His father was a Princeton-educated lawyer and Taylor went to Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the country’s top private schools. He was also a high achiever. By the end of high school, he was accepted to Harvard and had plans to become a lawyer just like his father.
However, while studying 4–5 hours per night in order to keep up in the pressure cooker environment, he started getting headaches that became more and more severe. Not knowing what the root cause was and fearing it would get worse, Taylor dropped out of high school, decided not to go to Harvard, and chose a profession that would be less taxing on his eyes.
Taylor was later diagnosed with the eye condition of Astigmatism. A condition which today is easy to diagnose and fix. Straining to focus on words was what caused the headaches. Although corrective lenses had come to America in 1862, the condition and solution had not become widely known by 1874 when Taylor dropped out. So, by a weird quirk of fate, Taylor went to the shop floor as an apprentice machinist rather than Harvard to become a lawyer.
As a machinist, he noticed that the workmen were not working nearly as hard as they could, often working at the slowest pace they could without getting punished. At the age of 25, when he became a foreman in a steel plant, he started to experiment with how worker productivity could be improved.
From there, he hit his stride. Over the next few years, his responsibilities grew from foreman, to master mechanic, to chief draftsman, to chief engineer. His ambitions were not small:
My head was full of wonderful and great projects to simplify the processes, to design new machinery, to revolutionize the methods of the whole establishment.
During these years, Taylor envisioned and tested the components that would eventually become his science of management. Furthermore, he became rich very early on through his metalworking inventions, ultimately having more than 40 patents to his name. At the age of 37, Taylor decided to help other companies implement what he had learned. And so he became one of the first management consultants ever.
Later in his career, Taylor committed himself to evangelizing the principles of scientific management. In 1911, at the age of 55, he published his magnum opus, Principles Of Scientific Management, and went on the speaking circuit.
We can see evidence of Taylor’s zeal for his philosophy in a letter to his brother-in-law…
…I have been out of business, that is, money-making business, for about nine years, and during this period I have devoted all of my spare time to the object of promoting modern scientific management. In this I feel I can accomplish much more than I could in any other way, because it has been practically my life’s work; and I also think it is my duty to devote my time and money to this cause, for the reason that there is no one else in the country who is in a position to accomplish what I am able to do in this direction.
Taylor did not just view the principles of scientific management as only being applicable to manual work factories. He, himself, wrote that the principles of scientific management “can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our governmental departments.”
According to his biographer, many from other fields agreed with Taylor. “Look back to 1910 and the first explosion of interest in scientific management and you see field after field absorbing its message” including offices, hospitals, libraries, prisons, and schools.
In fact, he even applied the principles to become a world-class tennis and golf player (he won the national doubles championship in 1881). And true to form, the principles of scientific management helped him create unorthodox but extremely effective motions and new tools. He patented everything from new tennis racquet and golf club designs to turf management techniques and tennis net designs.
And so we got the foundational theory for the 50x productivity revolution from an ambitious man who through a quirk of fate lived two contradictory lives. One life was spent working 10–11 hours a day on the shop floor. The other was spent playing tennis and golf at country clubs while also “studying physics and mathematics at home, singing in choral groups,” among other activities. If Taylor’s astigmatism had been cured, he likely would’ve become a successful lawyer unknown to the annals of history.
Educated on the critical role that Taylor played in the productivity revolution, I was ready to deep dive into the fundamental principles that caused the 50x productivity revolution in manual work…
What Caused The 50x Manual Worker Revolution Boom Is Surprising
The core thesis of Taylor’s Principles Of Scientific Management boils down to applying the scientific method to productivity using the following 4-step process: