N. Krupskaya
Original publication: ruthenia.ru
Translation: Mark Alexandrovich, Roderic Day

The Taylor System and the Organization of Work in Soviet Institutions (1921)

21 minutes | English Pусский | State Capitalism The Soviet Union

In this essay, first published in the Soviet Union’s Krasnaya Nov [Red Virgin Soil] in 1921, and more recently promoted by LibCom [1] and Cosmonaut [2], N. Krupskaya illustrates how Bolsheviks studied and learned from the American system — and from notorious servants of the bourgeoisie at that! This translation has been heavily edited for RS, and Taylor’s original Shop Management [3] was also tracked down in order to provide the quoted excerpts in the original English.

It is a strange thing: every Communist knows that bureaucracy is an extremely negative thing, that it ruins every living endeavor, that it distorts all measures, all decrees, all orders; but when a Communist begins to work in some commissariat or other Soviet institution, he finds himself half-buried in the bureaucratic swamp he hates so much.

What’s the matter? Who’s to blame here — evil saboteurs, old bureaucrats sneaking into in our commissariats, Soviet ladies?

No. The root of bureaucracy lies not in the evil will of certain individuals, but in the lack of ability to organize work in a planned and rational way.

The business of management — not an easy one. It’s a whole science. In order to properly organize the work of any institution, you need to know to the smallest details of the work itself, you need to know people, you need to have great perseverance, and so on.

We, Russians, have hitherto shown little sophistication in this science of management. However, without studying it, without learning to manage, we will not only not make it to communism, but not even to socialism.

We can learn a great deal from Taylor. Although he speaks mainly about the organization of work in the factory, many of the organizational principles he preaches can — and should — be applied to Soviet work.

Here is what Taylor himself writes about the application of known organizational principles:

There is no class of work which cannot be profitably submitted to time study, by dividing it into its time elements, […]. Clerk work can well be submitted to time study, and a daily task assigned in work of this class which at first appears to be very miscellaneous in its character. [4]

It is already evident from the above quotation that one of Taylor’s basic principles is decompose work into its constituent elements and divide labor based on this. Consider the work of the People’s Commissariats. Undoubtedly, there is a certain division of labor in them. There is a People’s Commissar, there is a board of the commissariats, there are departments, departments are divided into sub-departments, there are secretaries, clerks, typists, protocolists, etc. But this is actually misleading. Very often it’s not clear under the jurisdiction of which commissioner, board, or department a given case falls under. This is usually somehow determined by eyeballing. The functions of the different sub-divisions are not always precisely defined and delineated. There are also ranks. But in most cases, these “ranks” are very approximate. There is no precise definition of the functions of individual employees. This results in a proliferation of positions. There are, say, 10 people in an institution, and their functions are not distributed properly. 8 of them are laying about, while the other 2 are swamped. Work proceeds poorly. It seems to the head of the institution that there are not enough people, so he takes on a dozen more, but the work goes even worse. Why? Because the work is not distributed properly, employees don’t know what to do and how to do it. The swelling of the commissariats — that’s an observable, known fact. But does it make the work better?

The question of “collegiality and uniformity” is a question that has grown precisely on the basis of the lack of division of labor, on the basis of the lack of distinction between the functions of the commissioner and the functions of the board, the lack of distinction between the responsibility of the board and the responsibility of the commissioner. Failure to understand this seemingly simple thing often leads to administrative fantasies. Thus, during the period of discussion in the Council of People’s Commissars dedicated to the question of collegiality and uniformity, one absolutely monstrous project was submitted. It proposed to eliminate not only the board, but also the heads of departments and sub-departments; it proposed to leave only the People’s Commissar and technical officers, to whom the Commissar would give direct assignments. This project revealed a complete lack of understanding of the need for a detailed and strict division of labor. The authors wanted to simplify the apparatus, but they overlooked one small detail: with only a Commissar and technical officers, the Commissar would have to give the clerks several thousand tasks every day. No Commissar can do that!

A very thorough and far-reaching division of labor takes place in the factory and in the plant. It would never occur to anyone there to question the usefulness of such a separation. Meanwhile, the division of labor in Soviet institutions is vague; there is no detailed division of functions. It needs to be created. The duties of every employee must be defined precisely — from the commissioner to the mailman.

Everyone’s responsibilities should be spelled out in writing. These responsibilities can be very complex and extensive, but that makes it all the more important to be as precise as possible. Of course, this applies even more to all sorts of boards, presidia, etc.

Indeed, Taylor insists on precise written-down instructions indicating in detail how to perform a particular job. Though this is in reference to an industrial plant, this requirement applies entirely to commissary work:

The instruction card can be put to wide and varied use. It is to the art of management what the drawing is to engineering, and, like the latter, should vary in size and form according to the amount and variety of the information which it is to convey. In some cases it should consist of a pencil memorandum on a small piece of paper which will be sent directly to the man requiring the instructions, while in others it will be in the form of several pages of typewritten matter, properly varnished and mounted, and issued under the check or other record system, so that it can be used time after time. [5]

Just think how much the introduction of written instructions would improve the conduct of business in the commissariats, how much it would reduce unnecessary back-and-forths, how much precision it would bring, how much it would reduce the unproductive waste of time.

Taylor strongly insists that instructions, reports, etc. be put in writing.

A written report is much more precise, but more importantly it’s a record. The written form also facilitates supervision.

The division of duties and the introduction of written instructions allows less qualified people to take on suitable tasks. Taylor says you can’t

advocate the use of a high-priced tradesman to do the work which could be done by a trained laborer or a lower-priced man. No one would think of using a fine trotter to draw a grocery wagon nor a Percheron to do the work of a little mule. No more should a mechanic be allowed to do work for which a trained laborer can be used […]. [6]

To distribute the work correctly; to put each person in the right place according to his strength, ability, training, experience; “to put the right man in the right place” [7] as the English say — that is the task of the administrator. Most commissariats have what are known as accounting and distribution departments. These departments should be staffed by highly qualified workers who know the work of their commissariat, its needs to the smallest detail, who are able to evaluate people correctly, find out their level of experience and knowledge and so on. This is one of the most crucial jobs, on which the success of the entire institution depends. Is this sufficiently understood by the commissariats? No. This job is given away to random people.

“No people!”, you hear all the time. That’s what bad administrators say. A skilled administrator can avail himself of people of second-rate qualifications if he instructs them properly and divides the work among them well:

There is no question that the average individual accomplishes the most when he either gives himself, or some one else assigns him, a definite task, namely, a given amount of work which he must do within a given time; and the more elementary the mind and character of the individual the more necessary does it become that each task shall extend over a short period of time only. [8]

And Taylor provides guidance on how the work should be distributed:

Each man in the establishment, high or low, should daily have a clearly defined task laid out before him. This task should not in the least degree be vague nor indefinite, but should be circumscribed carefully and completely, and should not be easy to accomplish. […]

Each man’s task should call for a full day’s work, […]

[I]n order to lay out the next day’s work and plan the entire progress of work through the shop, daily returns must be made by the men to the planning department in writing, showing just what has been done. [9]

A system of bonus pay is only possible if work is distributed and accounted for properly.

In commissariats, this system is usually implemented completely incorrectly. Bonuses are not given for extra hours worked or for more work performed, but are given in the form of extra salary. This by itself indicates that there is no proper distribution of business work in Soviet institutions.

Of course, only someone who knows the job very well, down to the smallest detail, can distribute the work correctly:

The art of management has been defined, “as knowing exactly what you want men to do, and then seeing that they do it in the best and cheapest way.” [10]

The following should be self-evident, and yet it is almost constantly ignored. Comrades — diligent administrators and generally diligent workers — are constantly being taken from one field of work to another: today he works in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, tomorrow in the theater department, the day after tomorrow in supply, then in the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy or elsewhere. Before they have time to learn a new field of work, they’re transferred to yet another. It’s clear that they can’t achieve as much as they would have if they had time to focus on one field.

It is not enough to know people and to have general organizational skills: it is necessary to know perfectly the given field of work. Only then it is possible to distribute it correctly, teach it correctly, and account and supervise it well.

Supervision is something Taylor considers particularly important. He suggests that workers’ work be monitored daily, even twice a day. He insists on the most detailed written reporting, and suggests that there should be no fear of increasing the administrative staff in order to meet the needs of supervisory work. The best thing, in Taylor’s opinion, would be if it were possible to implement purely mechanical supervision (it is not for nothing that control clocks are associated with Taylor’s name).

It is pointless to write laws if they are not enforced, and Taylor realizes that all orders amount to nothing if they are not accompanied by strictly enforced supervision.

Meanwhile, the situation with regard to supervision in the commissariats is often quite poor.

The goal of Taylor’s system is to increase the labor intensity of the worker, to make his work as productive as possible, to accelerate the slow pace of work into a fast one, and to teach the worker to work without unnecessary interruptions, prudently minding every minute.

Naturally, Taylor is the enemy of all time-consuming unnecessary meetings. He seeks to replace oral reports with written ones. Where reports are unavoidable, he tries to make them as brief as possible:

What may be called the “exception principle” in management is coming more and more into use, although, like many of the other elements of this art it is used in isolated cases, and in most instances without recognizing it as a principle which should extend throughout the entire field. It is not an uncommon sight, though a sad one, to see the manager of a large business fairly swamped at his desk with an ocean of letters and reports, on each of which he thinks that he should put his initial or stamp. He feels that by having this mass of detail pass over his desk he is keeping in close touch with the entire business. The exception principle is directly the reverse of this. Under it the manager should receive only condensed, summarized, and invariably comparative reports, covering, however, all of the elements entering into the management, and even these summaries should all be carefully gone over by an assistant before they reach the manager, and have all of the exceptions to the past averages or to the standards pointed out, both the especially good and especially bad exceptions, thus giving him in a few minutes a full view of progress which is being made, or the reverse, and leaving him free to consider the broader lines of policy and to study the character and fitness of the important men under him. [11]

The work of the commissariats would take on a decidedly business-like character if the comrades working there were to adhere to the “principle of exceptions”!

In summary, Taylor believes that the following is necessary:

  1. Decomposition of the work into its simplest elements;
  2. A detailed division of labor based on the study of the work and its decomposition into elements;
  3. A precise definition of the functions that fall to each employee;
  4. The definition of these functions to be put precisely in written form;
  5. An appropriate selection of employees;
  6. Distribution of work such that each employee shall have as much of it as he can accomplish in a day, working at the most strenuous pace;
  7. Continuous coaching by more knowledgeable persons, if possible in writing;
  8. Systematic, properly organized supervision;
  9. The faculties for written reporting (as soon as possible);
  10. Where possible, mechanization of controls.

“Everybody knows this!” the reader might say.

But the point is not only to know, but to be able to apply what is known. That’s the whole point.

“No system should be conducted ineptly,” notes Taylor.

Where can we learn to manage?

Unfortunately, there is no means of selecting in advance those out of a number of candidates for a given work who are likely to prove successful. [12]

This is what Taylor is saying about industry in the advanced countries.

It is clear that we will not find such examples in Russia — not in industry, not within our administrative apparatuses. When it comes to this task, we need to blaze new trails. It is necessary to systematically improve Soviet institutions, adopting a thoughtful attitude when it comes to business and taking into account all the conditions of work, to banish from them even the shadow of bureaucracy. “Bureaucracy” does not mean accountability, paperwork, distribution of work, or clerical duties. “Bureaucracy” means negligence, confusion and clutter, obstacles to work, lack of assurances. We have to learn how to manage, we have to learn how to work. Of course, nothing can be done all at once:

[T]ime, and a great deal of time, is involved in a radical change in management, […] since a change of system involves a change in the ideas, point of view and habits of many men with strong convictions and prejudices, and that this can only be brought about slowly and chiefly through a series of object lessons, each of which takes time, and through continued reasoning; and that for this reason, after deciding to adopt a given type, the necessary steps should be taken as fast as possible, one after another, for its introduction. They should be prepared to lose some of their valuable men who cannot stand the change and also for the continued indignant protest of many of their old and trusted employees who can see nothing but extravagance in the new ways and ruin ahead. It is a matter of the first importance that, in addition to the directors of the company, all of those connected with the management should be given a broad and comprehensive view of the general objects to be attained and the means which will be employed. [13]

Taylor, as an experienced administrator, understands that the success of a venture depends not so much on any one individual, but on the ability of the collective to work as one.

Of course, Taylor envisions this collective only in terms of administrators. This is quite understandable. When seen as a whole, Taylor’s system has not only positives, such increasing labor productivity through the application of science, but also negatives: the increase in labour intensity under Taylor’s wage system benefits the owner, not the worker.

Workers realized that Taylor’s system was a great sweat-wringing machine, and fought against it. Since all production was in the hands of capitalists, workers were not interested in increasing productivity or in the growth of industry. Here, under Soviet power, with the exploitation of labor power abolished and with workers extremely invested in the rise of industry, the collective that studies and introduces improved methods of labor is the collective of workers of any given plant or factory. Capitalists could not rely on the collective of workers whom they exploited, so they relied on the managers they hired to help them supervise exploitation. Here, the working collective itself takes on the task of implementing the labor practices they deem most appropriate. Therefore it needs to familiarize itself, in theory and in practice, with these methods. That’s what production propaganda is all about.

As for the employees of Soviet institutions and People’s Commissariats, they also should familiarize themselves in as much detail as possible with the methods of labor productivity. This is the responsibility of the production cell of the employee collective. Only by raising the level of consciousness of all workers, only by involving them in the cause of increasing the productivity of the commissariats, is it possible to really improve this situation. Only then will we destroy, not only in words but also in deeds, the dead bureaucracy.

[1] Noa Rodman, “Red Virgin Soil Library” (2010), LibCom. [web] 

[2] Mark Alexandrovich, “Taylor’s System and Organization” (2020), Cosmonaut. [web] 

[3] Frederick Winslow Taylor, Shop Management (1911). [web] 

[4] Taylor, p. 116-7. 

[5] Taylor, p. 181. 

[6] Taylor, p. 27. 

[7] This is written in English in the original. 

[8] Taylor, p. 69. 

[9] Taylor, p. 63. 

[10] Taylor, p. 21. 

[11] Taylor, p. 126. 

[12] Taylor, p. 140. 

[13] Taylor, pp. 129-30.