Have you heard of Scientific Management, but unsure what is actually involves? You might recall that it is a concept which has been around for a long time, and wondering if it is still useful today. Is it something is do with making workers more productive? Read on and we will give you all the important basics of Scientific Management and answer your questions about how it fits with work today.
Scientific Management was introduced at a time of peak industrial growth and a shift in the workforce from rural farm labor to industrial manufacturing. It was highly influential at the time, resulted in huge increases in productivity and has continued to influence management theory to the present day. It also received widespread criticism, which you can read about at the end of this article.
The theory of Scientific Management was developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) and first published in 1911. Taylor was born into a wealthy Philadelphian Quaker family and initially trained as an engineer. He began his working life on the factory floor in the steel industry and worked his way up to Chief Engineer.
Prior to this work, he had published ‘A Piece-Rate System’, in which he advocated that workers should be paid for their output rather than their time. Taylor’s work was based on many time and motion studies of workers he had been conducting whilst working in the steel industry.
He was interested in what made a particular task more or less efficient, and meticulously timed and broke down manual labor tasks into component elements. He was focused on what was achieved in seconds and minutes, not what was completed over a whole shift.
Peter Drucker wrote that Taylor was “the first man in history who did not take work for granted but looked at it and studied it. His approach to work is still the basic foundation”.
Scientific Management was specifically in response to a phenomenon amongst workers which was then called ‘soldiering’. Soldiering was a considered a motivational problem where workers would purposively work below their capacity.
Taylor thought this resulted from three things: the workers’ belief that if they worked hard then there would be fewer workers needed overall and some of them would lose their jobs; non-incentive wage systems which paid workers the same regardless of output; and workers relying on guesswork to complete their tasks, rather than known optimal methods of working.
Taylor proposed that management should scientifically measure productivity, work out the optimal methods for increased productivity and set high targets for workers to achieve. This was in contrast to simply giving workers incentives such as higher wages or promotions to increase productivity, but leaving workers to figure out on their own how to achieve that.
The basic principles of Scientific Management can be summarized as follows:
- Rule-of-thumb working methods should be replaced with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
- Individual workers should be selected, trained, and developed to complete specific tasks, rather than leave them to their own skills and passively training themselves.
- Workers should be given clear tasks and instructions to follow, then be supervised whilst they complete them. This requires a cooperation between workers and management to ensure the scientifically measured tasks are being followed.
- Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers: managers scientifically plan the work, and workers perform the actual tasks.
Taylor’s principles were focussed on increasing productivity. He also somewhat idealistically thought that the interests of workers, managers, and owners were interconnected and should be aligned: ‘the principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity of each employee’.
He also fuelled man versus machine debates, by saying such things as: ‘in the past, the man has been first; in the future, the machine must be first’. He aimed to remove ‘all possible brain work’ from the shop floor and tried to hand as many actions as possible over to machines.
Drawbacks and controversy
Taylorism, as Scientific Management was also known, certainly ignited controversy – the stress of which has been suggested as a factor that leads to his early death, one day after his 59th birthday. His intention may have earnestly been to raise the standard of living, but the effect was increased pace and stress in the workplace – something which unions clearly fought against. Despite the obvious gains in the understanding of work and productivity, psychologists were concerned that it was crushing to the human spirit.
The variety of tasks which workers performed decreased and monotony increased. As pointed put by Will Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) anticipated this concern even before Taylor’s work: ”When a workman is unceasingly and exclusively engaged in the fabrication of one thing, he ultimately does his work with singular dexterity; but, at the same time, he loses the general faculty of applying his mind to the direction of the work.
He every day becomes more adroit and less industrious; so that it may be said of him, that, in proportion as the workman improves, the man is degraded’. Scientific management lacked a number of elements which were key to job dimension, such as- skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback.
A great visualization Scientific Management is in the Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times”, with its depictions of factory work and a scene where Charlie is fed by a machine. It is a stark picture of how the new order dehumanized the assembly worker by reducing them to nothing more than yet another moving part in a big machine. It has been reported that when it was shown to audiences in industrial Pittsburgh, they did not find it funny.
Motivating workers today
Robert Swaim points out that now the majority of workers in the US are knowledge workers, not manual workers as they were in Taylor’s time. Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959 to describe workers who engaged in problem-solving or creative thinking, not manual tasks. There is also a lot more free-flowing teamwork in contemporary workplaces.
It is far harder to observe the actual work of knowledge workers, and Swain says reports show productivity is decreasing. This is in part to do with being caught up in the busyness of doing paperwork rather than being productive. He also says that motivating knowledge worker requires completely different strategies than for manual workers. He lists key points like- quality being considered more important than quantity, knowledge workers are self-motivated to see the results of their work, they value growth opportunities and are more committed to their career than to a particular company.
Nonetheless, there are still many echoes of Taylor’s work in modern management theory and its methods still employed varying degrees.