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Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor is often viewed as one of the earliest management theorists, with his work on what he termed ‘scientific management’, having impacts throughout the twentieth century. Before Taylor, the majority of work was carried out by skilled craftsmen and operators who learned how to perform their jobs through apprenticeships and on the job training. As a result, most workers were more knowledgeable than the managers who controlled them, and hence the workers tended to make most of the decisions about how their job should be performed, how long it would take, and what materials were needed.

Taylor viewed this as being an absurd situation, with many managers unable to control their own workers due to their lack of knowledge around the job itself. As such, the main principle of scientific management was that managers should hold all the knowledge around how a job should be performed. This implied that managers should be able to determine the time and resources required for the job, as well as the best methods to train and manage their work force. Ultimately, Taylor believed that through a series of time and motion studies, managers should work out the most efficient way of performing any one task, and hence require all workers to perform the task in that way.

Taylor’s initial observations around some of the working practices imposed by skilled workers came from his observations of productivity at the Bethlehem Steel Works in the United States. He believed that workers deliberately operated below their maximum capacity and efficiency, something Taylor referred to as ‘soldiering’ due to a three main factors:

  • Firstly, workers believed that if they worked more efficiently, the task could be completed with fewer workers and hence jobs would be lost.
  • Secondly, the majority of pay systems meant that workers would be paid the same no matter how much they produced, hence providing an incentive for workers to convince managers that their maximum pace for a job was much lower than it actually was. Even if employees were paid according to their productivity, they believed that if they increased their overall output, managers would set new standards and decrease the productivity bonus.
  • Finally, Taylor believed that most workers used whatever method they had grown accustomed to, rather than using the most optimal method of work, which could be determined by scientific time and motion studies of the work.

Taylor believed that all these issues could be overcome if management would take responsibility for improving the productivity of workers, through a scientific study of the individual actions associated with each task, and how these actions could be most efficiently organised. He held that this was a much better method of planning working that attempting to incentivise workers, as incentives placed the responsibility on the worker to increase productivity, and hence the manager had no input. Taylor thus carried out a series of time and motion studies to determine the time taken for each action, and how the action could be performed more efficiently, or even eliminated from the task altogether.

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Taylor’s studies

One of Taylor’s first studies concerned the amount of raw pig iron that workers could move each day. He found that, on average, workers at the yard managed to move around 12.5 tons of iron each day. By conducting time and motion studies of the workers moving the pig iron, Taylor found that, if the amount lifted, lifting method, rest periods, paths taken across the yard and other factors were optimised, workers could move 47.5 tons each day. As such, Taylor introduced a specific system for lifting and carrying the iron, and specific rest periods, to maximise the productivity of the workers.

During the course of this study, Taylor found that not all workers could reach the 47.5 tons a day target, and that only around 12% of the workers in the yard were physically capable of achieving this. As such, he also argued that not only should a job be scientifically planned and managed, but that workers should be scientifically selected depending on their capabilities and how well they performed on a particular job. Taylor referred to these workers as ‘high priced workers’, and claimed that they should be paid a much higher wage due to their particular capabilities, provided they were willing to carry out their job in the scientifically ‘best’ way.

Taylor also studied the shovels used by workers to move material around the yard. Prior to his study, workers used their own shovel, with some being large and others small. Taylor held that there was a trade off between a smaller shovel, which allowed faster movement around the yard, and a larger shovel which carried more but slowed the worker down. As such, he carried out a study which demonstrated that the optimal weight for a shovel to hold was 21 pounds, and this allowed workers to carry the most of any material across the yard of the steel works. As such, the company provided the workers with a variety of shovels which would each hold 21 pounds of a specific material. Workers using these shovels were able to vastly increase their productivity, and were similarly dubbed high price workers, and paid significantly higher wages.

Inspired by Taylor’s experiments, Gilbreth performed an analysis of bricklaying, which demonstrated that most bricklayers tended to use more than ten motions to lay a single brick; when in fact only four were needed. By cutting down the number of motions to four, bricklayers were able to vastly increase their productivity, and hence compete with other more productive industries such as concrete pouring.

Principles and development of Scientific Management

Following the results of Taylor’s experiments, he drafted the following four principles of scientific management:

  • Managers must carry out scientific studies of all tasks they managed, to ensure that workers were performing as efficiently as possible.
  • Using this knowledge, managers should scientifically select the best workers for the job, and should actively train and develop each worker to achieve maximum performance
  • Managers should cooperate with the workers in ensuring that the best scientific methods are being used.
  • The workload should be divided between managers and workers, with managers using scientific management to plan the work and make the workers’ roles as simple and productive as possible.

Many factories and industries adopted scientific management, most notably Henry Ford, who applied the principles to his car factories, massively increasing productivity. However, Ford expanded the principles even further. Rather than have one worker perform each task, Ford split up the workload so that each worker simply performed a single action as the car moved down a conveyor belt. This Fordist approach to production became the model for modern mass production techniques.

However, whilst Taylor’s original principles held that management should use the principles of scientific management to improve productivity and reward workers who performed well, Ford’s development of the principles tended to reduce the level of skills required. In addition, many factory owners did not follow the principle of cooperating with workers, they simply used the first two principles to increase the productivity of workers, and decrease the skill levels needed to perform a task. As such, scientific management was often used by factory owners to reduce their workforce, as well as reduce the wages they paid to workers given that the scientifically planned jobs required much less skill that previous roles. Thus, the rise of Taylorism and Fordism can be seen as a contributor to the labour process theory argument that managers’ sole aim is to deskill workers and hence increase managers’ control over the labour process and the workers. Despite this controversy, scientific management has fundamentally changed the process of working and planning, and continues to be used in some forms today. For example, the McDonalds system of cooking, packaging and serving burgers and other fast food can be seen to follow some scientific management principles.

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