Scientific management

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Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), leading proponent of scientific management

Scientific management, also called Taylorism,[1] is a theory of management that analyzes and synthesizes workflows. Its main objective is improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. It was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management.

Its development began with Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s and 1890s within the manufacturing industries. Its peak of influence came in the 1910s;[2] by the 1920s, it was still influential but had begun an era of competition and syncretism with opposing or complementary ideas.

Although scientific management as a distinct theory or school of thought was obsolete by the 1930s, most of its themes are still important parts of industrial engineering and management today. These include analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Pursuit of economic efficiency[edit]

While the terms "scientific management" and "Taylorism" are commonly treated as synonymous, the work of Frederick Taylor marks only the first form of scientific management, followed by other approaches; thus in today's management theory, Taylorism is sometimes called, or considered a subset of, the classical perspective on scientific management. Taylor's own names for his approach initially included "shop management" and "process management". When Louis Brandeis popularized the term "scientific management" in 1910,[3] Taylor recognized it as another good name for the concept, and adopted it in his 1911 monograph.

The field comprised the work of Taylor; his disciples (such as Henry Gantt); other engineers and managers (such as Benjamin S. Graham); and other theorists, such as Max Weber. It is compared and contrasted with other efforts, including those of Henri Fayol and those of Frank Gilbreth, Sr. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth (whose views originally shared much with Taylor's but later diverged in response to Taylorism's inadequate handling of human relations). Taylorism, in its strict sense, became obsolete by the 1930s, and by the 1960s the term "scientific management" was no longer favored in contemporaneous management theory. However, called by other names, many aspects of scientific management have persisted in later management theories. In blending art, academic science, and applied science, modern management practice includes Taylorism as one of its ancestors. The process of improving on Taylorism's view of human resources began as soon as Taylor's works had been published (as evidenced by, for example, James Hartness's motivation to publish his Human Factor in 1912,[4] or the Gilbreths' work), and each subsequent decade brought further evolution.

Flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th century, scientific management built on earlier pursuits of economic efficiency. While it was prefigured in the folk wisdom of thrift, it favored empirical methods to determine efficient procedures rather than perpetuating established traditions. Thus it was followed by a profusion of successors in applied science, including time and motion study, the Efficiency Movement (which was a broader cultural echo of scientific management's impact on business managers specifically), Fordism, operations management, operations research, industrial engineering, manufacturing engineering, logistics, business process management, business process reengineering, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma. There is a fluid continuum linking scientific management with the later fields, and the different approaches often display a high degree of compatibility.

In management literature today, the term "scientific management" mostly refers to the work of Taylor and his disciples ("classical", implying "no longer current, but still respected for its seminal value") in contrast to newer, improved iterations of efficiency-seeking methods.[citation needed] In political and sociological terms, Taylorism can be seen as the division of labor pushed to its logical extreme, with a consequent de-skilling of the worker and dehumanisation of the workers and the workplace[citation needed]. Taylorism is often mentioned along with Fordism, because it was closely associated with mass production methods in factories, which was its earliest application. Today, task-oriented optimization of work tasks is nearly ubiquitous in industry.


Scientific management requires a high level of managerial control over employee work practices and entails a higher ratio of managerial workers to laborers than previous management methods. Such detail-oriented management may cause friction between workers and managers.

Taylor observed that some workers were more talented than others, and that even smart ones were often unmotivated. He observed that most workers who are forced to perform repetitive tasks tend to work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished. This slow rate of work has been observed in many industries in many countries[5] and has been called by various terms (some being slang confined to certain regions and eras), including "soldiering",[5][6] (reflecting the way conscripts may approach following orders), "dogging it",[7] "goldbricking",[8] "hanging it out",[5] and "ca canae".[5] Managers may call it by those names or "loafing"[9] or "malingering"; workers may call it "getting through the day" or "preventing management from abusing us". Taylor used the term "soldiering" and observed that, when paid the same amount, workers will tend to do the amount of work that the slowest among them does.[10]

This reflects the idea that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, and do not benefit from working above the defined rate of work when it will not increase their remuneration. He therefore proposed that the work practice that had been developed in most work environments was crafted, intentionally or unintentionally, to be very inefficient in its execution. He posited that time and motion studies combined with rational analysis and synthesis could uncover one best method for performing any particular task, and that prevailing methods were seldom equal to these best methods. Crucially, Taylor himself prominently acknowledged that if each employee's compensation was linked to their output, their productivity would go up.[10] Thus his compensation plans usually included piece rates. In contrast, some later adopters of time and motion studies ignored this aspect and tried to get large productivity gains while passing little or no compensation gains to the workforce, which contributed to resentment against the system.

Taylor rejected the notion, which was universal in his day and still held today, that the trades, including manufacturing, were resistant to analysis and could only be performed by craft production methods. In the course of his empirical studies, Taylor examined various kinds of manual labor. For example, most bulk materials handling was manual at the time; material handling equipment as we know it today was mostly not developed yet. He looked at shoveling in the unloading of railroad cars full of ore; lifting and carrying in the moving of iron pigs at steel mills; the manual inspection of bearing balls; and others. He discovered many concepts that were not widely accepted at the time. For example, by observing workers, he decided that labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue, either physical (as in shoveling or lifting) or mental (as in the ball inspection case). Workers were taught to take more rests during work, and as a result production "paradoxically" increased.[11]

A machinist at the Tabor Company, a firm where Frederick Taylor's consultancy was applied to practice, about 1905

Relationship to mechanization and automation[edit]

Scientific management evolved in an era when mechanization and automation were still in their infancy. The ideas and methods of scientific management were the next step after the American system of manufacturing in extending the transformation from craft work (with humans as the only possible agents) to mechanization and automation, although proponents of scientific management did not predict the extensive removal of humans from the production process. Concerns over labor-displacing technologies rose with increasing mechanization and automation.

By factoring processes into discrete, unambiguous units, scientific management laid the groundwork for automation and offshoring, prefiguring industrial process control and numerical control in the absence of any machines that could carry it out. Taylor and his followers did not foresee this at the time; in their world, it was humans that would execute the optimized processes. (For example, although in their era the instruction "open valve A whenever pressure gauge B reads over value X" would be carried out by a human, the fact that it had been reduced to an algorithmic component paved the way for a machine to be the agent.) However, one of the common threads between their world and ours is that the agents of execution need not be "smart" to execute their tasks. In the case of computers, they are not able (yet) to be "smart" (in that sense of the word); in the case of human workers under scientific management, they were often able but were not allowed. Once the time-and-motion men had completed their studies of a particular task, the workers had very little opportunity for further thinking, experimenting, or suggestion-making. They were expected (and forced) to "play dumb" most of the time (which, unsurprisingly to students of human nature, people tend to revolt against).

In between craft production (with skilled workers) and full automation lies a natural middle ground of an engineered system of extensive mechanization and partial automation mixed with semiskilled and unskilled workers in carefully designed algorithmic workflows. Building and improving such systems requires knowledge transfer, which may seem simple on the surface but requires substantial engineering to succeed. Although Taylor's original inspiration for scientific management was simply to replace inferior work methods with smarter ones, the same process engineering that he pioneered also tends to build the skill into the equipment and processes, removing most need for skill in the workers. This engineering was the essence not only of scientific management but also of most industrial engineering since then. It is also the essence of (successful instances of) offshoring. The common theme in all these cases is that businesses engineer their way out of their need for large concentrations of skilled workers, and the high-wage environments that sustain them. This creates competitive advantage on the local level (individual firms), although the pressure it exerts systemically on employment and employability is an externality.

Effects on labor relations in market economies[edit]

Taylor's view of workers[edit]

Taylor's view of workers was complex,[11] having both insightful and obtuse elements. Taylorism took some steps toward addressing their needs (for example, Taylor advocated frequent breaks and good pay),[10] but Taylor nevertheless had a condescending view of less intelligent workers, whom he sometimes compared to draft animals.[12] For example, although he pointed out valid differences between persons (regarding cognition and physical capabilities) and the need to select the right person for the right job (which is a valid point), he also made no effort to differentiate such valid points from ugly implications of class and caste; in other words, he failed to differentiate "differing in abilities" from "contemptible" and "not worthy of respect":

the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

—Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1911.[12]

Many other thinkers soon stepped forward to offer better ideas on the roles that humans would play in mature industrial systems. James Hartness, a fellow ASME member, published The Human Factor in Works Management[4] in 1912. Frank Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth offered alternatives to Taylorism. The human relations school of management evolved in the 1930s. Some scholars, such as Harry Braverman,[13] insisted that human relations did not replace Taylorism but rather that both approaches were complementary—Taylorism determining the actual organisation of the work process, and human relations helping to adapt the workers to the new procedures. Today's efficiency-seeking methods, such as lean manufacturing, include respect for workers and fulfillment of their needs as inherent parts of the theory. (Workers slogging their way through workdays in the business world do encounter flawed implementations of these methods that make jobs unpleasant; but these implementations generally lack managerial competence in matching theory to execution.) Clearly a syncretism has occurred since Taylor's day, although its implementation has been uneven, as lean management in capable hands has produced good results for both managers and workers, but in incompetent hands has damaged enterprises.

Implementations of scientific management usually failed to account for several inherent challenges:

  • Individuals are different from each other: the most efficient way of working for one person may be inefficient for another.
  • The economic interests of workers and management are rarely identical, so that both the measurement processes and the retraining required by Taylor's methods are frequently resented and sometimes sabotaged by the workforce.

Taylor himself, in fact, recognized these challenges and had some good ideas for meeting them. Nevertheless, his own implementations of his system (e.g., Watertown Arsenal, Link-Belt corporation, Midvale, Bethlehem) were never really very successful. <citation needed> They plugged along rockily and eventually were overturned, usually after Taylor had left. And countless managers who later aped or worshipped Taylor did even worse jobs of implementation. Typically they were less analytically talented managers who had latched onto scientific management as the latest fad for cutting the unit cost of production. Like bad managers even today, these were the people who used the big words without any deep understanding of what they meant. Taylor knew that scientific management could not work (probably at all, certainly never enduringly) unless the workers benefited from the profit increases that it generated. Taylor had developed a method for generating the increases, for the dual purposes of owner/manager profit and worker profit, realizing that the methods relied on both of those results in order to work correctly. But many owners and managers seized upon the methods thinking (wrongly) that the profits could be reserved solely or mostly for themselves and the system could endure indefinitely merely through force of authority.

Workers are necessarily human: they have personal needs and interpersonal friction, and they face very real difficulties introduced when jobs become so efficient that they have no time to relax, and so rigid that they have no permission to innovate.

Early decades: making jobs unpleasant[edit]

Under scientific management, the demands of work intensified. Workers became dissatisfied with the work environment and became angry. During one of Taylor's own implementations, a strike at the Watertown Arsenal led to an investigation of Taylor's methods by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, which reported in 1912. The conclusion was that scientific management did provide some useful techniques and offered valuable organizational suggestions,[need quotation to verify] but it gave production managers a dangerously high level of uncontrolled power.[14] After an attitude survey of the workers revealed a high level of resentment and hostility towards scientific management, the Senate banned Taylor's methods at the arsenal.[14]

Scientific management lowered worker morale and exacerbated existing conflicts between labor and management. As a consequence, the method inadvertently strengthened labor unions and their bargaining power in labor disputes,[15] thereby neutralizing most or all of the benefit of any productivity gains it had achieved. Thus its net benefit to owners and management ended up being small or negative. It took new efforts, borrowing some ideas from scientific management but mixing them with others, to produce more successful formulas.

Later decades: making jobs disappear[edit]

Scientific management may have exacerbated grievances among workers about oppressive or greedy management. It certainly strengthened developments that put workers at a disadvantage: the erosion of employment in developed economies via both offshoring and automation. Both were made possible by the deskilling of jobs, which was made possible by the knowledge transfer that scientific management achieved. Knowledge was transferred both to cheaper workers and from workers into tools. Jobs that once would have required craft work first transformed to semiskilled work, then unskilled. At this point the labor had been commoditized, and thus the competition between workers (and worker populations) moved closer to pure than it had been, depressing wages and job security. Jobs could be offshored (giving one human's tasks to others—which could be good for the new worker population but was bad for the old) or they could be rendered nonexistent through automation (giving a human's tasks to machines). Either way, the net result from the perspective of developed-economy workers was that jobs started to pay less, then disappear. The power of labor unions in the mid-twentieth century only led to a push on the part of management to accelerate the process of automation,[16] hastening the onset of the later stages just described.

In a central assumption of scientific management, "the worker was taken for granted as a cog in the machinery."[17] The chain of connections between his work and automation is visible in historical hindsight, which sees that Taylorism made jobs unpleasant, and its logical successors then made them less remunerative and less secure; then scarcer; and finally (in many cases) nonexistent.

Successors to scientific management such as 'corporate reengineering' and 'business process reengineering' envisage as a distant goal the elimination of all unskilled, or even most skilled human labor, an aspiration that stems from scientific management's reduction of process to discrete units. As the resultant commodification of work advances, no skilled profession, not even medicine, is immune to the efforts of scientific management's successors, the 'reengineers' often derided as 'bean counters' and 'PHBs'.

Effects on disruptive innovation[edit]

Scientific management arose in an era of rapid technological change. The goal of increasing efficiency within an existing technological context by formalizing the details of a process always carries the risk of fossilizing one moment's technological state, thereby stifling disruptive innovation and preventing further technological progress. For example, John Parsons may not have been able to incubate the earliest development of numerical control if he were a worker in a red-tape-laden organization being told from above that the best way to mill a part had already been perfected, and therefore he had no business experimenting with his own preferred methods.

Most implementations of scientific management worked within the implicit context of a particular technological moment and did not envisage transcending that moment in a continuous improvement process. Embracing the notion of a "one best way", such implementations treated the immediate context as a long-term constant rather than a variable. Later methods such as lean manufacturing overcame this limitation by including continual innovation as part of their process and by recognizing the iterative nature of development.

Relationship to Fordism[edit]

It is often assumed that Fordism derives from Taylor's work. Taylor apparently made this assumption himself when visiting the Ford Motor Company's Michigan plants not too long before he died, but it is likely that the methods at Ford were evolved independently, and that any influence from Taylor's work was indirect at best.[18] Charles E. Sorensen, a principal of the company during its first four decades, disclaimed any connection at all.[19] There was a belief at Ford, which remained dominant until Henry Ford II took over the company in 1945, that the world's "experts" were worthless, because if Ford had listened to them, it would have failed to attain its great successes. Henry Ford felt that he had succeeded in spite of, not because of, experts, who had tried to stop him in various ways (disagreeing about price points, production methods, car features, business financing, and other issues). Sorensen thus was dismissive of Taylor and lumped him into the category of useless experts.[19] Sorensen held the New England machine tool vendor Walter Flanders in high esteem and credits him for the efficient floorplan layout at Ford, claiming that Flanders knew nothing about Taylor. Flanders may have been exposed to the spirit of Taylorism elsewhere, and may have been influenced by it, but he did not cite it when developing his production technique. Regardless, the Ford team apparently did independently invent modern mass production techniques in the period of 1905-1915, and they themselves were not aware of any borrowing from Taylorism. Perhaps it is only possible with hindsight to see the overall cultural zeitgeist that (indirectly) connected the budding Fordism to the rest of the efficiency movement during the decade of 1905-1915. This is not unlike other invention storylines, where it was more than just Watt who was working toward a practical steam engine (others were struggling with it contemporarily); more than just Fulton who was working on steam boats; more than just Edison who was working on electrical technology; and even regarding Henry Ford himself, more than just he who was working toward a truly practical automobile in the 1890s (people all over North America and Europe were trying during that era, which he freely admitted). The same can be said about the development of the engineering of processes between the 1890s and the 1920s, although the Ford team were not at all conscious of this at the time. They perceived themselves to be working in a vacuum in that respect, but historians can argue with them about the extent to which that was really true. Taylor was an early pioneer in the field of process analysis and synthesis (which is why many people, falling for the storytelling allure of the Great Man theory, tend to think that the whole field owes everything to him). But he did not have the field to himself for long. The world was ready for such development by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And in fact many people started to work on it, sometimes independently, sometimes with direct or indirect influence on each other.

Influence on planned economies[edit]

Scientific management appealed to managers of planned economies because central economic planning relies on the idea that the expenses that go into economic production can be precisely predicted and can be optimized by design. The opposite theoretical pole would be laissez-faire thinking in which the invisible hand of free markets is the only possible "designer". In reality most economies today are somewhere in between.

Soviet Union[edit]

In the Soviet Union, Taylorism was advocated by Aleksei Gastev and nauchnaia organizatsia truda (the movement for the scientific organisation of labor). It found support in both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Gastev continued to promote this system of labor management until his arrest and execution in 1939.[20] Historian Thomas P. Hughes[21] has detailed the way in which the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s enthusiastically embraced Fordism and Taylorism, importing American experts in both fields as well as American engineering firms to build parts of its new industrial infrastructure. The concepts of the Five Year Plan and the centrally planned economy can be traced directly to the influence of Taylorism on Soviet thinking. Hughes quotes Joseph Stalin:

American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognises obstacles; which continues on a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is impossible.... The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.[22]

Hughes offers the equation "Taylorismus + Fordismus = Amerikanismus" to describe the Soviet view. Sorensen (1956)[23] recounted his experience as one of the American consultants bringing Ford know-how (although he himself would not have called it Ford-ism) to the USSR during this brief era, before the Cold War made such exchanges unthinkable. As the Soviet Union developed and grew in power, both sides, the Soviets and the Americans, chose to ignore or deny the contribution that American ideas and expertise had made: the Soviets because they wished to portray themselves as creators of their own destiny and not indebted to a rival, and the Americans because they did not wish to acknowledge their part in creating a powerful communist rival. Anti-communism had always enjoyed widespread popularity in America, and anti-capitalism in Russia, but after World War II, they precluded any admission by either side that technologies or ideas might be either freely shared or clandestinely stolen.

East Germany[edit]

East German machine tool builders, 1953.

By the 1950s, scientific management had grown dated, but its goals and practices remained attractive and were also being adopted by the German Democratic Republic as it sought to increase efficiency in its industrial sectors. In the accompanying photograph from the German Federal Archives, workers discuss standards specifying how each task should be done and how long it should take. The workers are engaged in a state-planned instance of process improvement, but they are pursuing the same goals that were contemporaneously pursued in capitalist societies, as in the Toyota Production System.


Scientific management was one of the first attempts to systematically treat management and process improvement as a scientific problem. It was probably the first to do so in a "bottom-up" way, which is a concept that remains useful even today, in concert with other concepts. Two corollaries of this primacy are that (1) scientific management became famous and (2) it was merely the first iteration of a long-developing way of thinking, and many iterations have come since. Nevertheless, common elements unite them. With the advancement of statistical methods, quality assurance and quality control could begin in the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1940s and 1950s, the body of knowledge for doing scientific management evolved into operations management, operations research, and management cybernetics. In the 1980s total quality management became widely popular, and in the 1990s "re-engineering" went from a simple word to a mystique. Today's Six Sigma and lean manufacturing could be seen as new kinds of scientific management, although their evolutionary distance from the original is so great that the comparison might be misleading. In particular, Shigeo Shingo, one of the originators of the Toyota Production System, believed that this system and Japanese management culture in general should be seen as a kind of scientific management.[citation needed]

Peter Drucker saw Frederick Taylor as the creator of knowledge management, because the aim of scientific management was to produce knowledge about how to improve work processes. Although the typical application of scientific management was manufacturing, Taylor himself advocated scientific management for all sorts of work, including the management of universities and government. For example, Taylor believed scientific management could be extended to "the work of our salesmen". Shortly after his death, his acolyte Harlow S. Person began to lecture corporate audiences on the possibility of using Taylorism for "sales engineering"[24] (Person was talking about what is now called sales process engineering—engineering the processes that salespeople use—not about what we call sales engineering today.) This was a watershed insight in the history of corporate marketing.

Today's militaries employ all of the major goals and tactics of scientific management, if not under that name. Of the key points, all but wage incentives for increased output are used by modern military organizations. Wage incentives rather appear in the form of skill bonuses for enlistments.

Scientific management has had an important influence in sports, where stop watches and motion studies rule the day. (Taylor himself enjoyed sports, especially tennis and golf. He and a partner won a national championship in doubles tennis. He invented improved tennis racquets and improved golf clubs, although other players liked to tease him for his unorthodox designs, and they did not catch on as replacements for the mainstream implements).[25]

Modern human resources can be seen to have begun in the scientific management era, most notably in the writings of Katherine M. H. Blackford, who was also a proponent of eugenics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mitcham, Carl and Adam, Briggle Management in Mitcham (2005) p.1153, quote:

    Nevertheless, regardless of outcomes and the fact that the term has fallen out of use, "'scientific management,' as well as its near synonym, 'Taylorism,' have been absorbed into the living tissue of American life" (Kanigel 1997, p. 6)

  2. ^ Woodham (1997), 12
  3. ^ Drury 1915, pp. 15–21.
  4. ^ a b Hartness 1912
  5. ^ a b c d Taylor 1911, pp. 13–14.
  6. ^, "soldier (intransitive verb)", sense 2
  7. ^, "dog (transitive verb)", below sense 2, related phrasal verb "dog it"
  8. ^, "goldbrick (verb)", intransitive sense
  9. ^ Taylor 1911, pp. 19, 23, 82, 95.
  10. ^ a b c Taylor 1911, pp. 13–29, 95.
  11. ^ a b Taylor 1911.
  12. ^ a b Taylor 1911, p. 59.
  13. ^ Braverman 1998.
  14. ^ a b Mullins 2004, p. 70.
  15. ^ Drury 1915, pp. 170–174
  16. ^ Noble 1984.
  17. ^ Rosen 1993, p. 139, quote:

    The worker was taken for granted as a cog in the machinery. The pioneers in diagnosing and prescribing for modern work organizations early in this century began with that very viewpoint. Frederick Taylor, father of scientific management, was an engineer; so was Henri Fayol, the early proponent of general principles of management.

  18. ^ Hounshell 1984, pp. 249–253.
  19. ^ a b Sorensen 1956, p. 41. quote:

    One of the hardest-to-down myths about the evolution of mass production at Ford is one which credits much of the accomplishment to 'scientific management.' No one at Ford—not Mr. Ford, Couzens, Flanders, Wills, Pete Martin, nor I—was acquainted with the theories of the 'father of scientific management,' Frederick W. Taylor. Years later I ran across a quotation from a two-volume book about Taylor by Frank Barkley Copley, who reports a visit Taylor made to Detroit late in 1914, nearly a year after the moving assembly line had been installed at our Highland Park plant. Taylor expressed surprise to find that Detroit industrialists 'had undertaken to install the principles of scientific management without the aid of experts.' To my mind this unconscious admission by an expert is expert testimony on the futility of too great reliance on experts and should forever dispose of the legend that Taylor's ideas had any influence at Ford.

  20. ^ Beissinger 1988, pp. 35–37.
  21. ^ Hughes 2004.
  22. ^ Hughes 2004, p. 251, quoting Stalin 1976 p. 115.
  23. ^ Sorensen 1956, pp. 193–216.
  24. ^ Dawson 2005.
  25. ^ Kanigel 1997


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