Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management

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Q.2 Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ was for a different time and a different place. Discuss.

I agree that Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ undoubtedly belonged to a different time and place. In this essay I will express why I believe this to be true. To do so, I will begin by outlining where the idea originated from, and what exactly Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ consists of. Following this I will discuss the reasons why I believe that this system was indeed for a different time and place, and I will compare it with systems that I believe to be more applicable to modern managerial work, for example Henry Mintzberg’s views on the Manager’s roles. I do however, also believe that there are aspects of Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ which can be seen to operate well in managerial work today, and so I will also discuss the ways that I see this to be true.

A manager is a person who is in charge of an organization or one of an organization’s sub-units. They are responsible for controlling or overseeing a group of individuals, and they allocate, direct and account for resources. Their main duties are to plan, organise, lead, and control. The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum propensity for the employer, as well as the maximum propensity for each employee (Taylor, 1911). Taylor’s analysis of management revealed that ‘unscientific management’ was the fundamental problem of the late years of the 19th century, around the time of the end of the ‘Long Depression’. At this time Taylor was working as a machine-shop labourer at the Midvale Steel Company of Philadelphia, and his studies were based on his personal observations of the organization and execution of daily work tasks here (Fulop and Linstead, 1999). He realised that maximum efficiency wasn’t being achieved by workers as employers were paying the lowest wages they could and in return the employees was doing as little work as they could (Taylor, 1911). The majority of workers believed that the fundamental interests of the workman and the management were antagonistic (Taylor, 1911). Taylor believed that the greatest obstacle to cooperation between the workman and the management was the ignorance of the management as to what the workman’s daily endeavour actually consisted of (Taylor, 1911). ‘Scientific management’ was developed on the contrary to this, where the interests of both the management and the workman needed to be viewed as one and the same – where prosperity for the employer cannot be achieved in the long run unless it is accompanied by prosperity for the employee (Taylor, 1911).

Taylor came up with a systematic approach to the study and design of work (Fulop and Linstead, 1999). There were four fundamental elements of this idea of ‘scientific management’ outlining the new duties of the management. The first being that they develop a science for each element of a workman’s work, where before they simply used a general rule of thumb method (Taylor, 1911). Secondly the management themselves scientifically select and train the workmen. In the past the workman appointed his own work and trained himself to the best of his capabilities (Taylor, 1911). Thirdly the management heartily cooperate with the workmen, insuring that all the work is being done in accordance with the developed principles of the science (Taylor, 1911). Fourthly and finally, that there is an essentially equal division of both work and responsibility between the workmen and the management. The management take on the work for which they are better suited, where in the past the majority of the responsibility and virtually all of the workload were thrown upon the workmen (Taylor, 1911). At the time the system of ‘scientific management’ was adopted by numerous companies in the United States, and it worked very well. Daily wages rose from 33% – 100 % higher than surrounding companies who were still operating under ordinary management, and average output per man per machine doubled (Taylor, 1911). As time progressed however, flaws to the system surfaced, and what seemed to be more appropriate management systems were developed.

One element of ‘scientific management’ was that work activities were standardized and formalized to optimize execution of finely subdivided repetitive tasks (Fulop and Linstead, 1999), for example Henry Ford’s assembly line that was developed after 1914 is an extension of this principle (Drucker, 1999). In their book, Liz Fulop and Stephen Linstead point out how this isolating and repetitive nature of work tasks was seen by the workmen and the trade unions as ‘the ultimate dehumanizing and alienation approach to work’ (Fulop and Linstead, 1999). Workmen became dissatisfied, increasingly careless, and more frequently absent from their employment. Working in these in humane working conditions, caused many workers to suffer extensive psychological trauma and poor work life quality (Fulop and Linstead, 1999). Managers could see that demotivation from the never-ending monotony of the factory was bound to emerge in the long run (Fulop and Linstead, 1999). In today’s society employee’s average intelligence has risen greatly, and people have become more aware of their value as human beings (Priestly, 2005). While ‘scientific management’ workers were viewed as working solely for economic reward, today people are no longer satisfied with receiving only fiscal reward for their work (Priestly, 2005). It was clear that managers needed to look for ways to make jobs more intrinsically rewarding – so that the actual work itself would bring a reward of significance or trial (Boddy, 2005). Most early job redesign strategies were concerned with reversing the effects the over-specified, inflexible jobs that stemmed from Scientific Management, emphasizing making jobs more satisfying and challenging (Fulop and Linstead, 1999).

The 21st Century has seen significant increases in access to technology and information. This is another reason why it is difficult to apply ‘scientific management’ to modern organizations. Organizations today process huge amounts of input, provided by satellite link-ups and the Internet, and employees no longer work in isolated units but are literally connected to the organization in its whole (Priestly, 2005). With this swift technological growth the importance of reacting quickly to developments that may affect the organization’s welfare is rising, and managers realise that it is not possible for them to control every aspect of employee’s functions, making it imperative for the employees to use their own initiative (Priestly, 2005). This flexibility that must be sustained by modern companies does not comply with Taylor’s ‘scientific management’, which required the work of every workman to be entirely planned out by the management at least one day in advance (Boddy, 2005). Lack of flexibility of workers can also be seen under ‘scientific management’ when workers became too highly specialized in their specific task, prohibiting their capability to adapt to new situations. Managers in the 21st century require their workers exhibit flexibility as well as efficiency (Priestly, 2005).

Henry Mintzberg also tackles many principles of Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ by comparing what he believes to be ‘folklore’ and what he believes to be fact about the manager’s job, from his point of view in 1990. The first principle he deals with is that ‘the manager is a reflective, systematic planner’ (Mintzberg, 1990). He countered this by explaining how instead numerous studies have shown that the manager works at an inexorable pace, and that their activities are characterized by brevity, variety and discontinuity (Mintzberg, 1990). He backs up his claim with evidence from studies of U.S. foremen and of British top and middle managers, where his beliefs, which contradict Taylor’s, can be seen to be true in these modern work organizations. Mintzberg also opposes ‘scientific management’ as a whole by saying that it is ‘folklore’ that management is a science and a profession (Mintzberg, 1990). What Mintzberg suggests to be true today is that the manager’s programs, including decision making and so on, are rooted deep with their brains (Mintzberg, 1990). With organizations becoming much more complex today, the manager’s job is increasingly more difficult. Managers are overburdened with obligations and are forced to overwork and do many of their task superficially (Mintzberg, 1990). ‘Scientific management’ concentrated on specialized functions of the organization, but Mintzberg saw that the characteristics required of effective managerial work are brevity, fragmentation and verbal communication (Mintzberg, 1990). As these are not what ‘scientific management’ was primarily concerned with, these characteristics have in fact impeded any scientific attempts to improve the manager’s job (Mintzberg, 1990).

Peter Drucker had a great amount of respect for Taylor’s ‘scientific management’. In his article in the California Management Review, he declared that no matter how loudly Taylor’s antagonists tried to proclaim their differences with him, every method during the past one hundred years that has shown any success in raising manual works productivity and real wages, has in fact been based on Taylor’s principles (Drucker, 1999). This can been seen in ‘work enlargement’, ‘work enrichment’ and ‘job rotation’ for example (Drucker, 1999). Despite this, Drucker did agree that in entering the 21st Century we needed to move past ‘scientific management’. He expressed the factors which he considered to be successful in determining the knowledge-worker’s productivity. One of them being that the responsibility for knowledge worker productivity must lie with the individual knowledge workers themselves. They have to manage themselves; have autonomy (Drucker, 1999). Another being that continuous innovation must to be part of the work, and a third is that productivity of the knowledge worker does not solely depend on quantity; quality is at least equally as important (Drucker, 1999). Each of these are almost the complete opposite of the factors emphasized by Taylor’s ‘scientific management’. Drucker’s knowledge worker system has proved to work effectively in the modern workplace, and an example of where its success can be seen is with a group of orthopaedic surgeons in a Mid-western city in the United States (Drucker, 1999).

One of the principles of ‘Scientific management’ that I previously mentioned that it was heavily oriented to turning everything work-related into quantifiable dimensions, rather than relying on the ‘rule of thumb’ method (Ritzer, 1983). Fordism’s roots are based on Taylor’s management model (Priestly, 2005). I will use the example that I previously mentioned of the assembly line. This is similarly oriented to a variety of quantifiable dimensions such as optimizing the speed of the line, and decreasing the price of the finished product (Ritzer, 1983). General Motors received increased sales and ultimately increased profits from the employment of this system. Although his theory retained the faults of Taylor’s; little workplace democracy and alienation, after 16 years of implementing Taylor’s scientific approach, Ford skilfully managed to sell more than 10 million cars, proving the success of the system (The Saylor Foundation, 2005). The auto industry has continued to thrive into the 21st Century, making use of new efficiencies and cost reductions (The Saylor Foundation, 2005).

There are many other organizations today where elements of Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ can be seen to be employed effectively. Taylor’s system strived for rationality and maximum efficiency. A typical example of an organization employing ‘scientific management’ in its production is the fast food chain McDonalds. The McDonalds worker’s manual includes every step-by-step detail that the staff must follow, from the precise cooking times and temperature settings for all products and equipment, to that precise instruction that the Grill men must put hamburgers ‘on the grill moving left to right, creating six rows of six patties each’ (Priestly, 2005). Speed, convenience and standardization are set in place of any creation in cooking or variety in choice (Ritzer, 1983). Uniformity is complete in every McDonald’s restaurant, meaning that no matter what country in the world you are in, each on is using the same standard method to prepare food, promote the staff, and clean the floors (Priestly, 2005). This scientific system of managing every aspect of working life in this fast food chain is what has given them the ability to efficiently supply standard food and service around world and lead them to become the biggest restaurant chain on Earth (Priestly, 2005). While there is no doubt that it is this scientifically managed system that has led to McDonald’s worldwide triumph, the flaws of the system are still to be seen. George Ritzer introduces the idea of the irony of the ‘irrationality of rationality’ that is found in the workplace of McDonalds (Ritzer, 2011). This means that what appears to be an extremely rational and efficient system, does in fact lead inefficiency, loss of control, and other irrationalities in the long run. Employee’s ‘McJobs’ are deemed dehumanizing, and provide little satisfaction or stability, and so it is no surprise that alienation, resentment and absenteeism are present (Ritzer, 2011). The fast-food industry have an enormous turnover rate of 300%, meaning that the average workers only lasts for approximately 4 months (Ritzer, 20011). This high turnover rate is of course inadmissible for any organization, as there is the increased costs of constantly hiring and training new staff. Also, the lack of worker’s skill required for their ‘McJobs’ in inefficient for the organization. Managers could be obtaining much more from their workers for the money they are paid (Ritzer, 2011), but as they operate under a scientific system of management, there is no diversity or flexibility in the worker’s jobs, and therefore they can only do the exact tasks that they are asked to do in the exact manner that they are asked to do them.

To conclude, I would say that it is evidently clear that Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ was developed for a different time and a different place. ‘Scientific management’ seemed like a simple result to managerial problems at the end of the 19th Century, but modern organizations of the 21st, being much more complex, require more than a systematic approach to managers. There is no doubt that Taylor’s ideas have dramatically shaped modern methods of mass production and structural organization (The Saylor Foundation, 2005), and it is true that there are elements to ‘scientific management’ which cooperate well today with some organizations management systems and continue to work effectively, however in general, our industry and society today have moved on and left ‘scientific management’ in the past where it belongs.


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