Ball Bearings & The Scientific Selection of Workers

In most cases (particularly when the work to be done is intricate in its nature) the “development of the science” is the most important of the four great elements of the new management. There are instances, however, in which the “scientific selection of the workman” counts for more than anything else.


A case of this type is well illustrated in the very simple though unusual work of inspecting bicycIe balls.

When the bicycle craze was at its height some years ago several million small balls made of hardened steel were used annually in bicycle bearings. And among the twenty or more operations used in making steel balls, perhaps the most important was that of inspecting them after final polishing so as to remove all fire-cracked or otherwise imperfect balls before boxing.

The writer was given the task of systematizing the largest bicycle ball factory in this country. This company had been running for from eight to ten years on ordinary day work before he undertook its reorganization, so that the one hundred and twenty or more girls who were inspecting the balls were “old hands” and skilled at their jobs. It is impossible even in the most elementary work to change rapidly from the old independence of individual day work to scientific cooperation.

In most cases, however, there exist certain imperfections in working conditions which can at once be improved with benefit to all concerned.

In this instance it was found that the inspectors (girls) were working ten and one-half hours per day (with a Saturday half holiday.)

Their work consisted briefly in placing a row of small polished steel balls on the back of the left hand, in the crease between two of the fingers pressed together, and while they were rolled over and over, they were minutely examined in a strong light, and with the aid of a magnet held in the right hand, the defective balls were picked out and thrown into especial boxes. Four kinds of defects were looked for–dented, soft, scratched, and fire-cracked–and they were mostly so minute as to be invisible to an eye not especially trained to this work. It required the closest attention and concentration, so that the nervous tension of the inspectors was considerable, in spite of the fact that they were comfortably seated and were not physically tired.

A most casual study made it evident that a very considerable part of the ten and one-half hours during which the girls were supposed to work was really spent in idleness because the working period was too long.

It is a matter of ordinary common sense to plan working hours so that the workers can really “work while they work” and “play while they play,” and not mix the two. Before the arrival of Mr. Sanford E. Thompson, who undertook a scientific study of the whole process, we decided, therefore, to shorten the working hours.

The old foreman who had been over the inspecting room for years was instructed to interview one after another of the better inspectors and the more influential girls and persuade them that they could do just as much work in ten hours each day as they had been doing in ten and one-half hours. Each girl was told that the proposition was to shorten the day’s work to ten hours and pay them the same day’s pay they were receiving for the ten and one-half hours.

In about two weeks the foreman reported that all of the girls he had talked to agreed that they could do their present work just as well in ten hours as in ten and one-half and that they approved of the change.

The writer had not been especially noted for his tact so he decided that it would be wise for him to display a little more of this quality by having the girls vote on the new proposition. This decision was hardly justified, however, for when the vote was taken the girls were unanimous that l0 1/2 hours was good enough for them and they wanted no innovation of any kind.

This settled the matter for the time being. A few months later tact was thrown to the winds and the working hours were arbitrarily shortened in successive steps to 10 hours, 9 1/2, 9, and 8 1/2 (the pay per day remaining the same); and with each shortening of the working day the output increased instead of diminishing.

The change from the old to the scientific method in this department was made under the direction of Mr. Sanford E. Thompson, perhaps the most experienced man in motion and time study in this country, under the general superintendence of Mr. H. L. Gautt. [note A]

In the Physiological departments of our universities experiments are regularly conducted to determine what is known as the “personal coefficient” of the man tested. This is done by suddenly bringing some object, the letter A or B for instance, within the range of vision of the subject, who, the instant he recognizes the letter has to do some definite thing, such as to press a particular electric button. The time which elapses from the instant the letter comes in view until the subject presses the button is accurately recorded by a delicate scientific instrument.

This test shows conclusively that there is a great difference in the “personal coefficient” of different men. Some individuals are born with unusually quick powers of perception accompanied by quick responsive action. With some the message is almost instantly transmitted from the eye to the brain, and the brain equally quickly responds by sending the proper message to the hand.

Men of this type are said to have a low “personal coefficient,” while those of slow perception and slow action have a high “personal coefficient.”

Mr. Thompson soon recognized that the quality most needed for bicycle ball inspectors was a low “personal coefficient.” Of course the ordinary qualities of endurance and industry were also called for.

For the ultimate good of the girls as well as the company, however, it became necessary to exclude all girls who lacked a low “personal coefficient.” And unfortunately this involved laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest working, and most trustworthy girls merely because they did not possess the quality of quick perception followed by quick action.

While the gradual selection of girls was going on other changes were also being made.

One of the dangers to be guarded against, when the pay of the man or woman is made in any way to depend on the quantity of the work done, is that in the effort to increase the quantity the quality is apt to deteriorate.

It is necessary in almost all cases, therefore, to take definite steps to insure against any falling off in quality before moving in any way towards an increase in quantity. In the work of these particular girls quality was the very essence. They were engaged in picking out all defective balls.

The first step, therefore, was to make it impossible for them to slight their work without being found out. This was accomplished through what is known as over-inspection Each one of four of the most trustworthy girls was given each day a lot of balls to inspect which had been examined the day before by one of the regular inspectors; the number identifying the lot to be over-inspected having been changed by the foreman so that none of the over-inspectors knew whose work they were examining. In addition to this one of the lots inspected by the four over-inspectors was examined on the following day by the chief inspector, selected on account of her especial accuracy and integrity.

An effective expedient was adopted for checking the honesty and accuracy of the over-inspection. Every two or three days a lot of balls was especially prepared by the foreman, who counted out a definite number of perfect balls, and added a recorded number of defective balls of each kind. Neither the inspectors nor the over-inspectors had any means of distinguishing this prepared lot from the regular commercial lots. And in this way all temptation to slight their work or make false returns was removed.

After insuring in this way against deterioration in quality, effective means were at once adopted to increase the output. Improved day work was substituted for the old slipshod method. An accurate daily record was kept both as to the quantity and quality of the work done in order to guard against any personal prejudice on the part of the foreman and to insure absolute impartiality and justice for each inspector. In a comparatively short time this record enabled the foreman to stir the ambition of all the inspectors by increasing the wages of those who turned out a large quantity and good quality, while at the same time lowering the pay of those who did indifferent work and discharging others who proved to be incorrigibly slow or careless. A careful examination was then made of the way in which each girl spent her time and an accurate time study was undertaken, through the use of a stop-watch and record blanks, to determine how fast each kind of inspection should be done, and to establish the exact conditions under which each girl could do her quickest and best work, while at the same time guarding against giving her a task so severe that there was danger from over fatigue or exhaustion. This investigation showed that the girls spent a considerable part of their time either in partial idleness, talking and half working, or in actually doing nothing.

Even when the hours of labor had been shortened from 10 1/2 to 8 1/2 hours, a close observation of the girls showed that after about an hour and one-half of consecutive work they began to get nervous. They evidently needed a rest. It is wise to stop short of the point at which overstrain begins, so we arranged for them to have a ten minutes period for recreation at the end of each hour and one quarter. During these recess periods (two of ten minutes each in the morning and two in the afternoon) they were obliged to stop work and were encouraged to leave their seats and get a complete change of occupation by walking around and talking, etc.

In one respect no doubt some people will say that these girls were brutally treated. They were seated so far apart that they could not conveniently talk while at work.

Shortening their hours of labor, however, and providing so far as we knew the most favorable working conditions made it possible for them to really work steadily instead of pretending to do so.

And it is only after this stage in the reorganization is reached, when the girls have been properly selected and on the one hand such precautions have been taken as to guard against the possibility of over-driving them, while, on the other hand, the temptation to slight their work has been removed and the most favorable working conditions have been established, that the final step should be taken which insures them what they most want, namely, high wages, and the employers what they most want, namely, the maximum output and best quality of work, –which means a low labor cost.

This step is to give each girl each day a carefully measured task which demands a full day’s work from a competent operative, and also to give her a large premium or bonus whenever she accomplishes this task.

This was done in this case through establishing what is known as differential rate piece work. [note 5] Under this system the pay of each girl was increased in proportion to the quantity of her output and also still more in proportion to the accuracy of her work.

As will be shown later, the differential rate (the lots inspected by the over-inspectors forming the basis for the differential) resulted in a large gain in the quantity of work done and at the same time in a marked improvement in the quality.

Before they finally worked to the best advantage it was found to be necessary to measure the output of each girl as often as once every hour, and to send a teacher to each individual who was found to be falling behind to find what was wrong, to straighten her out, and to encourage and help her to catch up.

There is a general principle back of this which should be appreciated by all of those who are especially interested in the management of men.

A reward, if it is to be effective in stimulating men to do their best work, must come soon after the work has been done. But few men are able to look forward for more than a week or perhaps at most a month, and work hard for a reward which they are to receive at the end of this time.

The average workman must be able to measure what he has accomplished and clearly see his reward at the end of each day if he is to do his best. And more elementary characters, such as the young girls inspecting bicycle balls, or children, for instance, should have proper encouragement either in the shape of personal attention from those over them or an actual reward in sight as often as once an hour.

This is one of the principal reasons why cooperation or “profit-sharing” either through selling stock to the employés or through dividends on wages received at the end of the year, etc., have been at the best only mildly effective in stimulating men to work hard. The nice time which they are sure to have to-day if they take things easily and go slowly proves more attractive than steady hard work with a possible reward to be shared with others six months later. A second reason for the inefficiency of profit-sharing schemes had been that no form of cooperation has yet been devised in which each individual is allowed free scope for his personal ambition. Personal ambition always has been and will remain a more powerful incentive to exertion than a desire for the general welfare. The few misplaced drones, who do the loafing and share equally in the profits, with the rest, under cooperation are sure to drag the better men down toward their level. Other and formidable difficulties in the path of cooperative schemes are, the equitable division of the profits, and the fact that, while workmen are always ready to share the profits, they are neither able nor willing to share the losses. Further than this, in many cases, it is neither right nor just that they should share either the profits or the losses, since these may be due in great part to causes entirely beyond their influence or control, and to which they do not contribute.

To come back to the girls inspecting bicycle balls, however, the final outcome of all the changes was that thirty-five girls did the work formerly done by one hundred and twenty. And that the accuracy of the work at the higher speed was two-thirds greater than at the former slow speed.

The good that came to the girls was,

First. That they averaged from 80 to 100 per cent. higher wages than they formerly received.

Second. Their hours of labor were shortened from 10 1/2 to 8 1/2 per day, with a Saturday half holiday. And they were given four recreation periods properly distributed through the day, which made overworkmg impossible for a healthy girl.

Third. Each girl was made to feel that she was the object of especial care and interest on the part of the management, and that if anything went wrong with her she could always have a helper and teacher in the management to lean upon.

Fourth. All young women should be given two consecutive days of rest (with pay) each month, to be taken whenever they may choose. It is my impression that these girls were given this privilege, although I am not quite certain on this point.

The benefits which came to the company from these changes were:

First. A substantial improvement in the quality of the product.

Second. A material reduction in the cost of inspection, in spite of the extra expense involved in clerk work, teachers, time study, over-inspectors, and in paying higher wages.

Third. That the most friendly relations existed between the management and the employés, which rendered labor troubles of any kind or a strike impossible.

These good results were brought about by many changes which substituted favorable for unfavorable working conditions. It should be appreciated, however, that the one element which did more than all of the others was, the careful selection of girls with quick perception to replace those whose perceptions were slow–(the substitution of girls with a low personal coefficient for those whose personal coefficient was high)–the scientific selection of the workers.

Chapter 2, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) by Frederick Winslow Taylor

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