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Principles and implications of scientific management

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The beginning of 20th century saw significant developments in technology that allowed, for the first time, mass manufacture of products. At the same time large corporations were established requiring a significant workforce. The influx of European immigrants coupled with the migration of the rural populace to urban regions made up a workforce that was predominantly uneducated and unskilled. Consequently, directing such an unskilled workforce resulted in inefficient and unproductive organisations. Scientific management, which involves altering and simplifying the way tasks are performed in order to maximise labour productivity, was implemented as a solution to these organisational problems.

For many, however, the ideas of scientific management are thought to be irrelevant to our highly technological advanced society, and therefore, it is a management style that is no longer required in the 21st century. Conversely, it has been argued that the principles of scientific management can still be seen adapted and implemented in various sectors of business in this current day and age (Wilson, 1995; Jones, 1997), and thus managers must still be aware of such a management style. Consequently, extent to which managers in the 21st century still need to be aware of the principles and implications of scientific management will be discussed.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, in 1911, published ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’, which explained that applying the scientific management method to businesses could notably improve worker productivity. Prior to the advent of scientific management, tasks were carried out by specialised skilled workmen who may have undertaken lengthy apprenticeships. As a result, decisions about how tasks were carried out in their specific field were made by them (Rule of Thumb). Scientific management removed such autonomy and replaced it with breaking down skilled techniques into a series of uncomplicated tasks that even the unskilled employee could be trained to perform.

In response to these clear inefficiencies in industrial practices, Taylor’s scientific management was based on certain principles that were to be achieved in order to increase labour productivity, they included:

1. Replacing the old Rule of Thumb system with proven scientifically studied work methods, thereby increasing efficiency.

2. Scientific selection and training of every worker to do standardised repetitive tasks (deskilling) as opposed to leaving them to train themselves. Therefore, resulting in improved productivity and quality of the manufactured goods due to task repetition.

3. Ensure that the scientifically developed methods are followed by monitoring and cooperating with workers

4. Work is to be divided evenly between workers and managers, therefore, managers plan scientific management principles are applied to planning the work by managers, but workers are the ones that carry out the tasks. This not only causes a division of labour but exerts the control of the manager over the workers.

The above mentioned principles were introduced and implemented in various corporations resulting in increased productivity. One such example was when Taylor was employed to improve work methods at the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1898. Until then each pig iron handler, on average, were loading 12.5 tonnes of blast furnaces product per day. By conducting scientific experiments relating to the optimal times for lifting and resting, Taylor was able to improve loading by pig iron handlers to 47.5 tonnes per day, raising productivity fourfold and increasing workers wages by 60% as a motivational incentive. As a result up to $80,000 savings were achieved per annum. Moreover, this approach involved the employees taking orders and thereby giving up their way of doing the job and replacing it with Taylors methods (Kanigel, 1997, p 214), one of the first examples of aligning the targets of the workers with those of the managers. It was also during this period that Taylor noted that money is a primary motivating factor and so workers ought to be paid extra in accordance to their output and given bonuses for reaching or exceeding targets.

The ideas of Taylor’s scientific study were developed further by Gilbreth, an engineer and manager like Taylor. While Taylor focused his attention on time Gilbreth focused on the motions of tasks. In his experiments Gilbreth’s used cameras to capture and study the motions of bricklayers. Thereafter, by redesigning and making the movements of workers to be more efficient he was able to increase output from 120 to 350 bricks per hour.

Henry Ford was another individual who adapted the principles of scientific management to manufacturing Ford vehicles. Prior to the implementation of scientific management, skilled craftsmen were required to produce the vehicles resulting in batch production of Fords. Henry Ford, however, mechanised the tasks by introducing a single purpose machine to produce standardised parts. Moreover, Ford took the complicated tasks of manufacturing vehicles and split them into much simpler standardised tasks that made up an assembly line. Fordism not only eliminated the need of skilled workers, but allowed for the efficient mass production of goods.

With the publication of Taylors work on scientific management, a century ago, the question needs to be asked as to why is this management style still relevant even today? The answer may have to do with fact that, if followed correctly, Taylorism can significantly impact productivity and efficiency of a corporation, factors that are still important in the 21st century.

One of the main examples of scientific management in use in the 21st century is McDonalds, a fast food restaurant business that has spread worldwide. Aspects of Fordist, Taylorism and Gillbreth management styles can be observed in McDonalds. Ritzers Mcdonaldization, a thesis derived from Braverman, looks at how the workforces in these restaurants have been deskilled, and therefore, tasks have been simplified. The meat is firstly grilled according to detailed and precise instructions, followed by the addition of lettuce and sauces etc, thereby creating an efficient production line with individuals having a particular role in the production of a McDonalds meal. Moreover, additional aspects of the standardized service such as cooking times, drink dispensers and pre-programmed cash registers not only limit the time to complete such tasks but prevent discretion or creativity, by the worker, that would be counterproductive to principles of scientific management of efficiency and control etc. Evidence of Gilbreths ideas are also present here as the layout of McDonalds kitchens place all equipment, food etc at the fingertips of employees therefore avoiding unnecessary actions (motions) such as to the other end of restaurant to collect an item. Therefore, such management techniques which ensure efficiency and productivity play an important role in Mcdonalds that others have argued have led to Mcdonalds becoming the largest restaurant chain in the world (Peters and Waterman 1982, p. 173-174).

In the same essence of McDonaldi zation, supermarkets are a further example of the adaption of scientific management in the 21st century. There is a clear division of labour with employees with particular roles such as stacking shelves, handling queries and scanning products at the cash register.

Call centres are another example of where aspects of scientific management can still be observed. This was primarily evident from studies conducted in 2004, which found that the design and operation of call centres were in line with Taylorism. Call centres were largely supervised including the time taken per call, whether an appropriate and efficient service was given as well as in many cases the advice given being scripted. Moreover, many of the operators were trained to deal with only specific aspects of enquiries which they were assigned according to a previous skill set assessment. Minimising costs was also a key issue in training, as with the high staff turnover it was important to package knowledge in order to allow workers to be properly trained as soon as possible. Such methods are in accordance with the principles of Taylorism of replacing the rule of thumb and scientifically selecting and training individuals. Call centres were also found to adopt the wage system of Taylorism where pay is proportional to the level of output, as employees were given a basic wage with commission if they managed a sale and with bonuses given if daily or weekly targets were met.

The TV broadcasting industry is another example of the use of scientific management in the 21st century. Studies carried out by McKinley and Quinn (1999) looked at the changes in the TV broadcasting due to technological advancements in the 1980s. Programme making equipment, until then, was unreliable and fragile, requiring constant monitoring as well as skilled operators. Thus, only experienced workers maintained and operated the equipment such as cameras. Thereafter, with the production of advanced and reliable equipment, such as point and shoot cameras diminished the need for highly skilled operators (deskilling). As a result, low skilled workers could be relatively easily trained to operate such equipment.

Car manufacturing in the 20th century brought about the Fordist approach, however, the ideas of this management style are still present in the 21st century. Various car companies are now using machines to manufacture vehicles, but instead of having a single machine they have used many robots that each have a specialised task in an assembly line. Consequently, despite significant advancements in technology scientific management is still relevant in our modern age.

In many parts of the world scientific management is still present and is implemented as a management style such as in Bangladeshi sweatshops, steel factories in China or manufacture of sportswear in Vietnam. In any case it is apparent that in these developing nations Taylorism still has a role to play in this day and age in order to maximise productivity while maintaining standards of efficiency.

Despite the examples given demonstrating that scientific management is still applicable in the 21st century, there are a number of criticisms of this scientific method which also contribute to the reasons why scientific management is not as relevant in the 21st century.

One of the primary criticisms of scientific management is that its mechanized approach to tasks, treating workers as machines, is inhumane. This mechanization is the result of deskilling the workforce, present in a number of cases such as in McDonalds, resulting in little job satisfaction and de-motivated employees due to the repetition of the tasks. This notion is supported by Herzberg and Maslow (REF) who state that two factors influence workers, Hygiene (e.g pay & status) and Motivator (e.g promotion), which lead to satisfied and motivated workers. Such ideas oppose Taylorism, which states that workers are motivated primarily by money.

In our modern day and age workers are now more ambitious aims in the workplace as well as having a better understanding of their rights as an employee. Consequently, employees not only want to be a more valued member of the organization but also have the opportunity of promotion within the business. However, scientific management doesn’t allow such possibilities, as it ignores the personal needs of the workers and focuses on efficiency and productivity. Likewise, another problem with scientific management is that it pays no attention to the psychological and social needs of workers. As many workers are no longer simply driven by financial rewards alone but by other rewards such as job satisfaction, recognition and status (Herzberg).

Scientific management causes workers to become highly specialised, thereby affecting their ability to adapt to new roles and circumstances, therefore hindering their flexibility, a highly valued attribute in the 21st century. Furthermore, this inflexibility may have consequences on the business itself, as to remain competitive in the modern economy businesses must be able to adapt to changes in the market. Such changes in the business may be resisted by the specialised workforce.

One of the main obstacles of contemporary scientific management is that of worker resistance characterized by trade unions. This obstacle, however, was also demonstrated during the initial implementation of Taylorism, as labour unions feared that corrupt employers may use Taylor’s piece rate system to drive wages down, which did occur on some level in 1915. In any case, due to the low skilled tasks of scientific management employment bargaining power is retained solely by the employer, which may lead to workers being underpaid and mistreated. Likewise, principles of efficiency and productivity that dive Taylorism come with difficult working conditions. In such circumstances workers have the power to have trade unions represent themselves in order to improve salaries, benefits, working conditions etc. As a result, scientific management in the 21st century is subject to authority of such organisations that it is difficult to implement fully to any business.

In conclusion, it is apparent that some aspects of scientific management are still relevant and are being implemented in the 21st century. The advantages of this management style in standardising tasks and focusing of productivity have resulted in various industries employing the scientific methods. At the same time, problems associated with treatment of the employees have lead to Taylorism being largely absent from the majority of corporations in the west. Moreover, the advent of the modern sophisticated employees to whom money is not the most significant motivator coupled with the strength of trade unions have further removed scientific management from contemporary organisations. Therefore, scientific management theory as a whole is not employed in modern corporations, but rather, aspects of it are still observable in certain businesses, thus, a management style that contemporary managers still need to be aware of.


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