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Scientific Management

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Taylorism or Scientific management is the name of the approach to management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology initiated by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his 1911 monograph "The Principles of Scientific Management".

Taylorism is often mentioned along with Fordism, because it was closely associated with mass production methods in manufacturing factories. Taylor's own name for his approach was scientific management. It relied upon time and motion study to find the "one best method" to achieve a goal, i.e., one that was shorn of unrequired extra movements. This sort of task-oriented optimization of work tasks is nearly ubiquitous today in menial industries, most notably in assembly lines and fast-food restaurants.

His arguments began from his observation that, in general, workers in repetitive jobs work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished. This slow rate of work (which he called "soldiering", but might nowadays be termed "loafing" or "malingering" as a typical part of a day's work), he opined, was a combination of the inherent laziness of people and the observation that, when paid the same amount, workers will tend to do the amount of work the slowest among them does. He therefore proposed that the work practice that had been developed in most work environments was crafted, intentionally or unintentionally, to be very inefficient in its execution, because it had been developed to allow workers to goof off. From this he posited that there was one best method for performing a particular task, and that if it were taught to workers, their productivity would go up.

Taylor introduced many concepts that were not widely accepted at the time. For example, by observing workers, he decided that labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue. He proved this with the task of unloading ore. Workers were taught to take rest during work and output went up. Today's army uses it during forced marches - the soldiers are ordered to take a break of 10 minutes for every hour of marching. This allows for a much longer forced march than continuous walking.

Additionally, he recognized that there is a certain suitability of certain people for particular jobs. His presentation of this seems quite discriminatory today:

Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.

This view -- match the worker to the job -- has resurfaced time and time again in management theories.

While his principles have a certain logic, most applications of it fail to account for two inherent difficulties:

  • it ignores individual differences: the most efficient way of working for one person may be inefficient for another;
  • it ignores the fact that the economic interests of workers and management are rarely identical, so that both the measurement processes and the retraining required by Taylor's methods would frequently be resented and sometimes sabotaged by the workforce.

Ironically, both difficulties were recognised by Taylor, but are generally not fully addressed by managers who only see the potential improvements to efficiency. Taylor believed that scientific management can not work unless the worker benefits. In his view management should arrange the work in such a way that one is able to produce more and get paid more, by teaching and implementing more efficient procedures for producing a product.

In general, pure Taylorism views workers simply as machines, to be made efficient by removing unnecessary or wasted effort. However, this approach ignores the complications introduced because workers are necessarily human: personal needs, interpersonal difficulties, and the very real difficulties introduced by making jobs so efficient that workers have no time to relax. As a result, workers worked harder, but became dissatisfied with the work environment. Some have argued that this discounting of worker personalities led to the rise of labor unions.

The practical problems caused by Taylorism led to its replacement by the human relations school of management.

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45