The Master of Scientific Management

Frederick W. Taylor’s (1856–1915) place in management history is assured due to his enormous contribution to its development. Nevertheless, he remains a controversial figure and it is still hotly debated whether his legacy has been a positive one.

With a background in industrial engineering, Taylor developed a system of management that addressed the relationship between workers and the tasks of production. He believed that the production process would be made more efficient if the time each worker spent on producing each unit of output, be that a product or service, could be reduced. Following a series of experiments and observations in various settings as a manufacturing manager, he supposed the best way to achieve this would be increased specialisation and the division of labour. This division of labour would best be determined by means of scientific management techniques, instead of tradition and ‘rule of thumb’ guesswork that had little or no logical basis.

“Darwin, Marx, and Freud make up the trinity often cited as the ‘makers of the modern world’. Marx would be taken out and replaced by Taylor if there were any justice.”
Peter Drucker, The Rise of the Knowledge Society, 1993

In 1911, Taylor formulated his ideas with four principles, also known as Taylorism, aimed at optimising workplace efficiency:

Principle One

Use a scientific approach and examine the way in which workers perform. Determine the level of job knowledge and experiment with ways to improve the tasks they perform as part of their job.

Principle Two

Rather than arbitrarily assigning tasks to workers, plan the workload and appropriate level of remuneration between workers based on their capability and motivation. Arrange this method with specified rules for standard operating procedures.

Principle Three

Train and instruct workers according to the scientific management principles. Provide instructions and supervision to ensure the principles are implemented effectively.

Principle Four

Formalise a reasonable or acceptable level of performance for the task and confirm that managers are in place to make sure the scientific management principles are being followed.

It didn’t take long for Taylorism to take hold across industries, with varying degrees of obedience. While many companies were faithful to Taylor’s original theory, some managers chose to selectively apply the principles of scientific management as they saw fit, which produced problematic results. For instance, some managers saw increases in performance, but, rather than rewarding the workers accordingly as Taylor advocated, they instead increased the workload of the workers without increasing their pay. This approach translated to downsizing of workforces as employers found fewer employees were required.

Certainly, it is one of the criticisms of Taylorism that workers felt that their newly specialised, simplified jobs were repetitive and unengaging, and that they were far less satisfied by their work, which they considered to have become dehumanising. Trade unions condemned the scientific management approach, which was said to cause a feeling of resentment and distrust within the workplace hierarchy, as managers didn’t seem concerned with the well-being of their workers. To counter this argument, advocates of Taylorism argue that the disrepute of the principles is down to their poor implementation and adoption by organisations.

“Taylor's crime, in the eyes of the unions, was his assertion that there is no ‘skilled work’. In manual operations there is only ‘work’. [For the unions] all work can be analysed the same way.”
Drucker, The Rise of the Knowledge Society, 1993

Despite this sometimes-perceived role of crushing the soul of labour and turning workers into automatons, versions of Taylorism are still used to this day in many organisations. However, its continuing legacy remains under critical scrutiny, and Taylor’s method has been subject to several revisions and reforms, with some captains of industry considering the four principles as an unfinished starting point.

An example of this is a time-motion study, which combines a significant aspect of Taylors research into scientific management – the Time Study – with the Motion Study work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, to become what is still a widely used method applied to the improvement and upgrade of work systems.

Despite Taylor’s negative reputation regarding the interests of workers, it is testament to the impact of his scientific management system that its themes are still relevant to many aspects of industrial engineering and management today.

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