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Scientific management, also called Taylorism, was a theory of management that analyzed and synthesized workflows. Its main objective was 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; 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.
Scientific management's application was contingent on a high level of managerial control over employee work practices. This necessitated a higher ratio of managerial workers to laborers than previous management methods. The great difficulty in accurately differentiating any such intelligent, detail-oriented management from mere misguided micromanagement also caused interpersonal friction between workers and managers.
While the terms "scientific management" and "Taylorism" are often treated as synonymous, an alternative view considers Taylorism as the first form of scientific management, which was followed by new iterations; thus in today's management theory, Taylorism is sometimes called (or considered a subset of) the classical perspective (meaning a perspective that's still respected for its seminal influence although it is no longer state-of-the-art). Taylor's own early names for his approach included "shop management" and "process management". When Louis Brandeis popularized the term "scientific management" in 1910, Taylor recognized it as another good name for the concept, and he used it himself 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 evolved divergently in response to Taylorism's inadequate handling of human relations). Taylorism proper, in its strict sense, became obsolete by the 1930s, and by the 1960s the term "scientific management" had fallen out of favor for describing current management theories. However, many aspects of scientific management have never stopped being part of later management efforts called by other names. There is no simple dividing line demarcating the time when management as a modern profession (blending art, academic science, and applied science) diverged from Taylorism proper. It was a gradual process that began as soon as Taylor published (as evidenced by, for example, Hartness's motivation to publish his Human Factor, or the Gilbreths' work), and each subsequent decade brought further evolution.
Scientific management is a variation on the theme of economic efficiency; it is a late 19th and early 20th century instance of the larger recurring theme in human life of increasing efficiency, decreasing waste, and using empirical methods to decide what matters, rather than uncritically accepting pre-existing ideas of what matters. Thus it is a chapter in a larger narrative that includes many ideas, from the folk wisdom of thrift to a profusion of applied-science successors, including time and motion study, the Efficiency Movement (which was the 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 by that name with the later fields, and there is often no mutual exclusiveness when discussing the details of any one of these topics.
In management literature today, the greatest use of the term "scientific management" is with reference to the work of Taylor, Omotosho Adeniyi Samson (Neyoo) 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. 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. 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. The theory behind it has evolved greatly since Taylor's day, reducing the ill effects, although in the wrong hands it is sometimes implemented poorly even now.
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 and has been called by various terms (some being slang confined to certain regions and eras), including "soldiering", (reflecting the way conscripts may approach following orders), "dogging it", "goldbricking", "hanging it out", and "ca canae". Managers may call it by those names or "loafing" 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.
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 (although many white-collar imitators of his ideas would forget) that if each employee's compensation was linked to their output, their productivity would go up. Thus his compensation plans usually included piece rates. He rejected the notion, which was universal in his day and still prevalent even now, of the secret magic of the craftsman—that the trades, including manufacturing, were black arts that could not be analyzed 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.
Unless people manage themselves, somebody has to take care of administration, and thus there is a division of work between workers and administrators. One of the tasks of administration is to select the right person for the right job:
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.
Scientific management evolved in an era when mechanization and automation existed but had hardly gotten started, historically speaking, and were still embryonic. Two important corollaries flow from this fact: (1) The ideas and methods of scientific management were exactly what was needed to be added to the American system of manufacturing to extend the transformation from craft work (with humans as the only possible agents) to mechanization and automation; but also, (2) Taylor himself could not have known this, and his goals did not include the extensive removal of humans from the production process. During his lifetime, the very idea would have seemed like science fiction, because not only did the technological bridge to such a world not yet look plausible, but most people had not even considered that it could happen. Before digital computers existed, such ideas were not just outlandish but also mostly unheard of.
Nevertheless, Taylor (unbeknownst to himself) was laying the groundwork for automation and offshoring, because he was analyzing processes into discrete, unambiguous pieces, which is exactly what computers and unskilled people need to follow algorithms designed by others and to make valid decisions within their execution. It is often said that computers are "smart" in terms of mathematic computation ability, but "dumb" because they must be told exactly what to calculate, when, and how, and (in the absence of any successful AI) they can never understand why. With historical hindsight it is possible to see that Taylor was essentially inventing something like the highest-level computer programming for industrial process control and numerical control in the absence of any machines that could carry it out. But Taylor could not see it that way at the time; in his world, it was humans that would be the agents to execute the program. However, one of the common threads between his 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.
Taylor's view of workers was complex, having both insightful and obtuse elements. Taylorism took some steps toward addressing their needs (for example, Taylor advocated frequent breaks and good pay), but Taylor nevertheless had a condescending view of less intelligent workers, whom he sometimes compared to draft animals. And perhaps Taylor was so immersed in the vast work immediately in front of him (getting the world to understand and to implement scientific management's earliest phases) that he failed to strategize about the next steps (sustainability of the system after the early phases).
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 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, 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:
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. 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.
Under Taylorism, workers' work effort increased in intensity. 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. 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.
Certainly Taylorism's negative effects on worker morale only added more fuel to the fire of existing labor-management conflict, which frequently raged out of control between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. Thus it inevitably contributed to the strengthening of labor unions and of labor-vs-management conflict (which was the opposite of any of Taylor's own hopes for labor relations). That outcome neutralized most or all of the benefit of any productivity gains that Taylorism had achieved. Thus its net benefit to owners and management ended up being small or negative. It would take new efforts, borrowing some ideas from Taylorism but mixing them with others, to produce more successful formulas.
To whatever extent scientific management caused the strengthening of labor unions by giving workers more to complain about than bad or greedy managers already gave them, it also led to other pressures tending toward worker unhappiness: 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, hastening the onset of the later stages just described.
A central assumption of Taylorism was that "the worker was taken for granted as a cog in the machinery." 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 such as 'corporate reengineering' or 'business process reengineering' brought into sight the distant goal of the eventual elimination of industry's need for unskilled, and later, perhaps even most skilled human workers in any form, all stemming from the roots laid by Taylorism's recipe for deconstructing a process. As the resultant commodification of work advances, no skilled profession, even medicine, has proven to be immune from the efforts of Taylorism's successors, the 'reengineers', whose mandate often comes from skewed motives among people referred to as 'bean counters' and 'PHBs'.
One of the traits of the era of applied science is that technology continually evolves. There is always a balance to be struck between scientific management's goal of formalizing the details of a process (which increases efficiency within the existing technological context) and the risk of fossilizing one moment's technological state into cultural inertia that stifles disruptive innovation (that is, preventing the next technological context from developing). To give one example, would John Parsons 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?
Implementations of scientific management (often if not always) worked within the implicit context of a particular technological moment and thus did not account for the possibility of putting the "continuous" in "continuous improvement process". The notion of a "one best way" failed to add the coda, "[… within the context of our current environment]"; it treated the context as constant (which it effectively was in a short-term sense) rather than as variable (which it always is in a long-term sense). Later methods such as lean manufacturing corrected this oversight by including ongoing innovation as part of their process and by recognizing the iterative nature of development.
It is quite natural to jump to the post hoc conclusion that Fordism borrowed ideas from Taylorism and expanded from there. In fact it appears that Taylor himself did that when he visited the Ford Motor Company's Michigan plants not too long before he died. But it seems that the methods at Ford were in fact independently reinvented based on logic, and that any influence from Taylorism either was nil or at least was far enough removed to be very indirect. Charles E. Sorensen disclaimed any connection at all. There was a climate at Ford at the time (which remained until Henry Ford II took over the company in 1945) that the world's "experts" were worthless, because if Ford had listened to them, its great successes would not exist. 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 topics). Therefore Sorensen spoke very dismissively (and briefly) of Taylor, and the mention was only to lump him into the unneeded-so-called-expert category. Sorensen did speak very highly of Walter Flanders and credits him with being the first driving force behind the efficient floorplan layout at Ford. Sorensen says that Flanders knew absolutely nothing about Taylor. It is possible that Flanders (a New England machine tool whiz) had been exposed to the spirit of Taylorism elsewhere, although not to its name, and had been (at least subconsciously) influenced by it, but he did not cite it explicitly as he simply allowed logic to guide his production development. 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.
"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."—Charles E. Sorensen, 1956.
Scientific management was naturally appealing 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.
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. Historian Thomas P. Hughes 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.
Hughes offers the equation "Taylorismus + Fordismus = Amerikanismus" to describe the Soviet view. Sorensen (1956) 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.
The German Federal Archives contain documentation created by the German Democratic Republic as it sought to increase efficiency in its industrial sectors. In the accompanying photograph, workers discuss standards that have recently been created specifying how each task should be done and how long it should take. By the 1950s, Taylor's original form of scientific management (and the name "scientific management" itself) had grown dated, but the goals and themes remained attractive and found new avatars. The workers in the photograph were engaged in a state-planned instance of process improvement, but they were essentially pursuing the same goals that were also contemporaneously pursued in the Free World by people like the developers of 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 (a kind of evolution that, unfortunately, draws bad managers to jump on the bandwagon without understanding what the bandwagon is). 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.
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" (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).
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)
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.
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