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The History of Project Management: Gantt and the Early 20th Century

written by: Joe Taylor Jr. • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 7/6/2011

While Frederick Taylor battled over productivity issues with foremen and with labor unions, a close friend and colleague prepared to revolutionize business for the next hundred years—and beyond.

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    Taylorism Spawns Project Management's Most Used Tool

    The records of the Stevens Institute of Technology suggest that Frederick Taylor first met Henry Gantt as students there near the end of the 19th Century. Gantt followed Taylor as he attempted to overhaul labor management practices at steel plants in the Philadelphia region. Like Taylor, Gantt was fascinated by the ways in which careful measurement of workers’ performance could impact their productivity. Although Taylor favored methods of increasing efficiency through consistency, Gantt believed that more effective scheduling could overcome the challenges of modern industry.

    To that effect, Gantt sought to visualize complex schedules and work relationships in a way that everyone in an organization—from a factory foreman to a day laborer—could understand. Having started his career as a draughtsman before turning to engineering, Gantt applied all of his experience to the design of a simple chart that tracked who was responsible for what task, and in what order.

    The Gantt Chart, as we know it, was born.

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    Gantt's Positive Attitude Impacts Project Management's Development

    While Taylor earned the scorn of critics for his low opinion of the American worker’s intelligence, Gantt held a different philosophy that allowed his ideas to spread more readily. Instead of concerning himself with profit and efficiency, Gantt focused on the empowerment of the American worker through organized action. Like Taylor, Gantt believed that improved efficiency would lead to shorter workweeks and higher wages. However, Gantt also focused on the American ideal of worker satisfaction. Given a choice, Gantt believed, laborers would prefer to work hard as part of a team with clear goals, deadlines, and incentives. Many of his ideas about motivation and compensation still influence the HR policies at the world’s biggest corporations.

    Of course, Henry Gantt wasn’t the only business strategist developing the nascent role of a project manager in industry. Polish economist Karol Adamiecki is widely credited with developing a charting system very similar to Gantt’s at about the same time. Without the benefit of English language publication and Gantt’s exposure to American industry, it would take a few more decades before project management professionals would start to feel his influence.

    Nonetheless, Gantt laid the foundations of project management through his consulting practice and in a series of books written between 1903 and 1919. By the time his final book was published, Gantt had developed strong theories about task scheduling and professional development. He believed that minimizing interference between tasks could unlock the true potential of teams, and that tracking efficiency over time could lead to stronger productivity.

    Although Gantt designed his charts with everyday tasks and quarterly evaluations in mind, a new generation of project management professionals would use his work to keep pace with the evolving nature of work in the 20th Century…