Frederick Winslow Taylor

Father of Scientific Management Thinker

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Frederick Winslow Taylor
Public domain image, Wikimedia

Peter Drucker is often called 'the guru's guru'. Drucker himself would suggest that accolade should be given to Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915):

'Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor's `scientific management' rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since - even though he has been dead all of sixty years." (Peter Drucker, Management: tasks, responsibilities, practices. Heinemann,1973).

In Taylor's seminal work, The principles of scientific management, he puts forward his ideas of `Scientific Management' (sometimes referred to today as `Taylorism') which differed from traditional `Initiative and Incentive' methods of management.

 

Biography

Life and career

Although Taylor passed the entrance examination for Harvard College, failing eyesight meant that he could not take up his place. Instead, in 1874, he took the unusual step for someone of his upper-class, almost aristocratic, background of becoming an apprentice patternmaker and machinist at the Enterprise Hydraulic Works.

Following his apprenticeship, Taylor took up an unskilled job at the Midvale Steel Works in 1878, and after several different jobs and a master's degree in mechanical engineering he was appointed chief engineer there. In 1890 he became general manager of Manufacturing Investment Company (MIC), eventually becoming an independent consulting engineer to management. By 1910, Taylor and his management methods had become well known.

Key theories

Scientific management

Taylor's work The principles of scientific management (source of all the following quotes) was published in 1911. His ideas were an accumulation of his life's work, and included several examples from his places of employment.

The overriding principles of scientific management are that:

  • Each part of an individual's work is analysed 'scientifically', and the most efficient method for undertaking the job is devised; the 'one best way' of working. This consists of examining the implements needed to carry out the work, and measuring the maximum amount a 'first-class' worker could do in a day; workers are then expected to do this much work every day.
  • The most suitable person to undertake the job is chosen, again 'scientifically'. The individual is taught to do the job in the exact way devised. Everyone, according to Taylor, had the ability to be 'first-class' at some job. It was management's role to find out which job suited each employee and train them until they were first-class.
  • Managers must cooperate with workers to ensure the job is done in the scientific way.
  • There is a clear 'division' of work and responsibility between management and workers. Managers concern themselves with the planning and supervision of the work, and workers carry it out.

Taylor summed up the differences between his principles of management and the traditional method thus:

Under the management of 'initiative and incentive' practically the whole problem is 'up to the workman' while under the scientific management fully one-half of the problem is 'up to the management'. The principle object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.

He could justify his actions and methods because his long-term goal he felt would lead to '...diminution of poverty, and the alleviation of suffering.'

His main reason for developing scientific management was that he wished to do away with 'soldiering' or 'natural laziness', as he believed that all workers spent little of their time putting in full efforts. To do this he aimed to analyse every job in a scientific way so that no one could be in any doubt about how much work could and should be done in a day. Taylor felt that '...every single act of every workman can be reduced to a science.'

Inherent in Taylor's style of management was the setting up of planning departments of clerks who ensured that:

...every labourer's work was planned out well in advance, and the workmen were moved from place to place by the clerks with elaborate diagrams or maps of the yard before them, very much as chessmen are moved on a chess-board, a telephone and messenger system having been installed for this purpose. In this way a large amount of the time lost through having too many men in one place and too few in another, and through waiting between jobs, was entirely eliminated.

This, as Taylor recognised, required the setting up of a more 'elaborate organisation and system', which sowed the seeds for Max Weber's bureaucratic organisation structure. Taylor's approach constituted one of the first formal divisions between those who do the work (workers) and those who supervise and plan it (managers).

Management and workers

For workers on the shopfloor, scientific management brought a dramatic loss in skill level and autonomy. As well as being subject to increased supervision, workers were no longer able to use their own tools, which they might have spent many years modifying to suit their own personal style. In many cases, however, Taylor's ideas were extremely effective. In the case of shovelers at the Bethlehem Steel Works, workers earned higher wages and the company saved between $75,000 and $80,000 per year through greater efficiency.

Although Taylor believed that disputes between managers and workers would be eliminated because 'What constitutes a fair day's work will be a question for scientific investigation, instead of a subject to be bargained and haggled over', there were numerous occasions when his ideas came into conflict with labour organisations. His opinion of such unions was invariably derogatory - believing that their objective was to limit the output of their members. Because of this Taylor focused on the individual, believing that where a group of workers was formed, peer pressure would be used to ensure each man did not work to his full capacity. In the Bethlehem Steel Works he decreed that no more than four men could work together in a gang without a special permit.

It took Taylor three years to implement some of his methods in the Midvale Steel Works. The men resorted to breaking their machines in an attempt to prove to management that Taylor was overworking them. In response, Taylor fined any man whose machine broke, until eventually 'they got sick of being fined, their opposition broke down, and they promised to do a fair day's work.'

It is easy to see why Taylor's work was regarded as inhumane. For, whatever his motives of bringing about the greater good for the worker on the shop floor, the alleviation of poverty, and the elimination of waste, his methods were extremely hard and sometimes had the opposite effect. The way that Taylor wrote about unskilled workers was often condescending and unsympathetic.

However, he also recognised that punishment should not be the first resort, and wrote:

If the workman fails to do his task, some competent teacher should be sent to show him exactly how his work can best be done, to guide, help, and to encourage him, and, at the same time to study his possibilities as a workman. So that, under the plan which individualizes each workman, instead of brutally discharging the man or lowering his wages to make good at once, he is given the time and the help required to make him proficient at his present job, or he is shifted to another class of work for which he is either mentally or physically better suited.

Contemporary reaction to scientific management

Taylor’s work was popularised in the US by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and by a spin-off association, the Society to Promote the Science of Management, which was later re-named the Taylor Society to recognise his contribution. The development of university-based business schools which taught aspiring managers was also crucial to making the link between the principles of scientific management and their application in real work scenarios, and the importance of these schools increased rapidly after 1920. As public interest in Taylor’s methods was amplified, it attracted consultancy firms to promote Taylorite methods.

Taylor’s writings were soon published worldwide. In the UK, Taylor’s methods were slow to be implemented by leading industrialists who followed a more paternalistic tradition. Scientific management attracted criticism from the likes of Edward Cadbury, who argued in a 1914 article for the Sociological Review that since unskilled labour was already monotonous, 'any further sub-division of labour in the direction of eliminating any little judgement initiative as to the methods of work, valuable as it might be in its immediate impact on production, would almost certainly in the long run produce effects which would lower the whole capacity of the worker.'

At the time of his death in 1915 Taylor's work was the subject of much debate, both for and against it. By 1930, a new generation of social scientists were producing strong critiques of his ideas.

In perspective

Taylor was a man of his times and sought solutions to the problems of his times. However, many of his ideas remain relevant to the modern day and have inspired further innovations. Three in particular, taken from The principles of scientific management, stand out:

Rewards: 'A reward, if it is to be most effective in stimulating men to do their best work, must come soon after the work has been done...The average workman must be able to measure what he has accomplished and clearly see his reward at the end of each day if he is to do his best.' In Taylor's view, it was pointless to involve the shopfloor workers in end-of-year profit sharing schemes.

Quality standards: The use of written documentation for each part of a worker's job, inherent in scientific management, is strikingly prescient of the procedural documentation in use in the ISO 9000 series of quality standards:

In the case of a machine-shop which is managed under the modern system, detailed written instructions as to the best way of doing each piece of work are prepared in advance, by men in the planning department. These instructions represent the combined work of several men in the planning room, each of who has his own specialty, or function. The direction of all of these men, however, are written on a single instruction card, or sheet.

The main difference is that today's best practice means involving staff in drawing up their own procedures.

Suggestion schemes: Taylor proposed a form of incentive for employees to make suggestions if they felt an improvement could be made to either the method or the implement used to undertake a task. After analysis of the suggestion, and if it was introduced into the workplace, 'The workman should be given the full credit for the improvement, and should be paid a cash premium as a reward for his ingenuity. In this way the true initiative of the workmen is better attained under scientific management than under the old individual plan.'

Taylor was one of the first true pioneers of management through his scientific examination of the way work was done. His led directly to the achievements of other management gurus like Max Weber and Henry Ford. Along with Lillian and Frank Gilbreth (see Related Thinkers), Taylor is also recognised as a major contributor to time and motion study. This involved examining workers’ movements in detail and using the results to streamline work and conserve effort, but the approach has now fallen out of fashion.

In many ways Taylor’s philosophy lies in direct opposition to today’s best practice. The most common criticism of Taylor is that his approach is too mechanistic - treating people like machines rather than human beings , with the result being a one-size-fits-all approach to people management and training that fails to recognise the complexity of human motivations.

Writing in 2013, Hales argued that Taylor’s ideas can be seen both as the original ‘stem cell’ for management theory, and as a ‘pathogen’ afflicting management that most subsequent theories have tried to remedy.

Further reading

Key works by F W Taylor

Books

Shop management. 1903 in Scientific management (comprising Shop Management, The principles of scientific management, Testimony before the Special House Committee.) New York: Harper, 1947

The principles of scientific management. New York: W W Norton, 1967

Key works by others

Books

Kakar, S. Frederick Taylor: a study in personality and innovation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1970

Nelson, D. Frederick W Taylor and the rise of scientific management. Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 1980

Kanigel, R. The one best way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the enigma of efficiency. London: Little Brown and Company, 1997

Stewart, M. The management myth: why the experts keep getting it wrong. New York: W W Norton, 2009

Evans, C. and Holdmes, L. Re-Tayloring management. Farnham: Gower, 2013

 

Journal articles

Giannantonio, C. M. and Hurley-Hanson, A.E. Frederick Winslow Taylor: Reflections on the relevance of the principles of scientific management 100 years later. Journal of Business & Management, 17 (1) 2011, pp.7-10

Witzel, M. and Warner, M. Taylorism revisited: culture, management theory and paradigm shift. Journal of General Management, 40 (3) 2015, pp.55-69

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