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To what extent is Taylor’s theory of scientific management still useful in todays business

The manifestation of Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management was a major breakthrough in traditional approach to management process. Simultaneously, as management theory evolved gradually Taylor’s theory was severely criticised and its role decreased dramatically to the extent that nowadays it is argued whether scientific management still exists. It is not hard to find examples of Scientific Management in today’s modern world; we can see the car industry which use a similar approach as well as the computer manufacturing plants even some hospitals, almost all of them function more efficiently due to the application of Scientific Management. However, as stated these organisations use a ‘similar’ approach, so therefore, in this essay I will attempt to discover if or how much is Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management still used by managers in its pure form.

Taylor’s experience at the Midvale Steel Company led to the birth of scientific approach to management. As he worked there he recognised that the labour productivity was largely inefficient due to a workforce that functioned by “rules of thumb”. He started his experiments at the workplace in order to replace the traditional “rules of thumb” by factual scientific knowledge. The backbone of this activity was his “Time And Motion Study” where he worked out how he can reduce the number of motions in performing a task in order to increase productivity. This element of his theory is still widely used by managers today, which is evident in McDonalds, who use one standardised process e.g. to make a burger, which workers have to follow. This standardised process and the 5 principles of scientific management* put together have evidently been used and proved to be the best way for such organisations to reach their ultimate productivity as they are the world leading fast food chain. Places for example Dubai or India, customers are guaranteed their order within 60 seconds, and this guarantee can only have come from the application of Taylor’s Time and Motion study. Taylor’s experiment led him to think, workers are motivated solely by money and he promoted the idea of “A fair days pay for a fair days work” which I will go into later in this essay.

*5 principles of scientific management:

A clear division of tasks and responsibilities

Use scientific methods to determine the ‘one best way’ of doing a job

Scientific selection of best person for the newly designed job

Ensure workers are trained to perform the job the ‘one best way’

Strict surveillance of workers using a hierarchy of authority and close supervision

Every manager will have their own unique style of management; however, every manager has to use strategies which are compatible with the organisations nature of work and the culture of the organisation. Taylor experienced his approach was rebelled and criticised for being rigid and inflexible because simply workers did not want the change. Therefore managers have to think deep about which strategy to use in their organisation and seek ways of achieving greater flexibility in the workforce. One of the major giants in today’s world Google do not apply Taylor’s “machine” metaphor to their organisations workforce and focus more on the Hawthorne experiment where certain experiments were carried out by George Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works. His research conclusions were welcomed as it showed that the workforce is more of an asset to the organisation. This increased motivation and productivity seemed to boost as well as in quality because his experiments lasted 5 years therefore, he had greater data to draw conclusions from unlike Taylor. Therefore, Google allows their workforce to have the freedom to work at desired times and the environment is custom designed by the workforce. Google’s organisational structure enables the workforce to work in teams on projects which showed in Mayo’s experiments that working in groups can be highly efficient.

The two organisations I have mentioned above are well ahead in their business world using completely contrasting strategies. One can say that they both are in different market sectors, where one requires high innovative and creative skills and the other requires hands and feet, well that is one conclusion this essay can make that Taylorism is still useful today depending on the product and structure of an organisation. A piece rate system will not suit Google, therefore they will not have Taylor’s theory applied to their organisation. Moreover his “best method” idea will also not suit all organisations because to be innovative and creative there can’t be just one best method.

Another interesting point is since 1960 the time when the downturn of Taylor’s theory had begun, charitable organisations had started to increase, and this can be seen in the Fig 1.1 below. The graph shows that people were willing to work voluntarily without money being their main motivation. This proves that Taylor’s thinking of money being the only factor was wrong. Therefore again charitable organisations which there are loads of today will not be using Taylor’s methods in their work environment. However, during a time of an emergency such organisations may apply Taylor’s “best method” on their assembly line, to get to the people in need as soon as possible. Again we can see some of Taylor’s theory being used but still not in its pure form.

Growth in number of charities 1960-2008 - Figure 1.1 [1] 

Fordism is another management theory which has its roots based on the theory of scientific management. The theory combined the idea of the moving assembly line together with Taylor’s systems of division of labour and piece rate payment. With Fordism, jobs are automated or broken down into unskilled or semi-skilled tasks. The pace of the continuous flow assembly line dictates work. Although Ford led the way of production in the assembly of consumer goods, such as cars, his theory had the faults of Taylor’s. Theory X management ensures a high division of labour in order to effectively run mass production; this leads to little workplace democracy resulting in unsatisfied workforce (Nelson, 1980). In addition, machinery is given more importance than workers. Only the element of piece rate can be applied in some organisations today by managers.

Overall scientific management seems to be an incomplete system, which managers try to complete today by using some elements and integrate it with other theories for example Maslow’s hierarchy and Herzberg’s theory.

Employees now seem to be more intelligent then before, people have started to value themselves more but as seen in both the Steel plant under Taylor’s management and in every McDonald’s restaurant in the World, labour is becoming “deskilled”. As jobs are broken down, and workers tasks are made easier, humans become little more than “machines” in the chain. They are not satisfied with only fiscal reward for their tasks. Under Taylor’s Scientific Management system workers were viewed as working solely for economic reward. In current organisations, on the other hand, it has been recognised that productivity and success is not just obtained by money and control of workforce but by contributing to the social well-being and development of the individual employee. Every employee out there is there to fight and be promoted, not just work as machines.

In conclusion, it can be seen that Scientific Management is still very much a part of any organisation in the 21st Century. Its strengths in creating a divide between management functions and work functions have been employed widely at all levels and in all industries. In addition its strengths in making organisations efficient through replacement of “rules of thumb” with scientific fact have insured its widespread application. Now that all modern organisations work on a factual basis and all of them have managerial and employee structures competition is controlled by other factors outside the boundary of Scientific Management. Modern organisations prioritise social factors such as employee initiative, loyalty and adaptability alongside efficiency. For this reason, Taylor’s claim that workers are solely concerned with monetary reward and that every motion of work needs to be controlled from above seems outdated, untrue, and impractical.

It is perhaps then better Scientific Management theory in its pure form is not visible in modern organisations, however, elements of it are so relevant that they have become deeply ingrained in all modern organisations with other theories mixed and matched. These are the very reasons why management has taken on new dimension in the 21st Century.

I believe Taylor’s methods in its pure form still can be found in developing countries. Simply because bit organisations put their manufacturing plant where labour is cheap and is desperate for money. Therefore, Taylor’s saying “A fair days pay for a fair days work” can work very well there, giving organisations high productivity for cheap labour.

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