Baltimore author Robert Kanigel works over the most complex matters, just like his latest biography subject, Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of efficient living.


June 12, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Robert Kanigel knows you can never really be sure how things happened. Memory tends to edit and improve life's important encounters as they recede in time.

That's why he asked an old girlfriend a few years ago if indeed his change of direction occurred as he remembered it. Did he come to her 27 years ago and declare definitively, purposefully, maybe even melodramatically: "I'm going to be a writer?"

"That's the way it was," she said, or words to that effect.

Kanigel explains how he was walking along 25th Street that day in 1970, his mind a turbulence of ideas about the explosive Sixties, "those years when the world was turned upside down."

He felt he had a lot to say and was trying to find a way to say it. When he looked up he saw a sign announcing the offices of Baltimore's then counterculture newspaper, Harry. On impulse he went in and unloaded all his teeming thoughts upon the editor.

He walked out with an assignment. Three essays followed, all published by Harry.

"They were terrible. Pretentious," Kanigel says. He remembers that clearly enough. But as bad as they were, he knew, "this was what I had to be doing."

That was the beginning. Since then the Brooklyn-born mechanical engineer has emerged as the Baltimore writer of big books on complicated subjects. Serious books.

His most recent tome is a 675-pager titled "The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency." It is probably the most thorough and detailed biography ever written on an obscure man who changed life for most Americans, and the world beyond as well.

Taylor was the first time-and-motion study man. But he was more than that. He was the Muhammad Ali of time-and-motion men. He invented a system known in its heyday as "scientific management."

It's a system much of the world still lives with. It has been so deeply woven into the tapestry of modern civilization that hardly anybody notices it anymore. But it still governs.

Even today Taylor is worshiped in Japan, where efficiency of production was central to the country's post-war economic success. During a visit to that country, Taylor's son Robert was pressed by executives at Toshiba for some personal item of his father's, a pen or picture. Taylor is still studied by students of management and its history -- its gurus, apostles and true believers in the centrality of it in nearly all endeavors.

Among leaders of labor Taylor's name is despised, for he was the man who took the soul out of work, stripped it of its need for individual initiative, and replaced it with what was seen as a robotic industrial slavery. Taylor made efficiency more than a cardinal American value; he made it an obsession.

Kanigel's approach to this prophet with the formulas for getting things done is even-handed. He doesn't seem to like his subject all that much. But he knows that without Taylor's ideas about dividing the labor of many hands and machines, all the products and consumer goods that make life comfortable and provide at least the opportunity for leisure would not be available. Taylor looked closely at how things were made back at the end of the last century -- a wagon wheel, a motor, a lamp -- and found new ways to make them cheaper, and thus available.

Taylor's legacy

Taylorism, Kanigel points out, long ago spread from the factory into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Historians, he writes, credit Taylor for encouraging the "emergence of modern time consciousness, leisure's transformation from genuinely free time to organized recreation," and other unhealthy developments.

His techniques of efficiency have become absorbed utterly. The inflexible, not-a-wasted-motion routine of a McDonald's restaurant is a residue of Taylorism.

"Quality time," a euphemistic formulation invented by hurried career couples, Kanigel points out, "is the notion of efficiency applied to child rearing."

1% Taylor, long gone, is everywhere.

Kanigel is 51 now. He lives in Rodgers Forge, an old suburb immediately north of Baltimore encrusted with obedient vegetation flourishing beneath a population of old trees. It is a neighborhood, he says, that resembles the one he grew up in in the Flatfields section of Brooklyn. He shares his brick house with his attractive wife of 16 years, Judy, and his 13-year-old son, David. The house is one of those strong, tight dwellings, all in a row and so emblematic of Baltimore, which even today shame the newer structures in the sprawling suburbs beyond.

He has become acquainted with success. He received a grant worth $125,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation before he even started writing "The One Best Way."

"Nobody ever gave me that kind of money," he said. "It made my life a lot easier."

The book, which came out May 21, took him five years. It is being marketed as an offering in the Sloan Foundation technology book series. So far reviews have been favorable.

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