This essay attempts to critically assess the achievements of Frederick Winslow Taylor in work management. It discusses its positives as well as negatives and attempts to evaluate its usefulness in today’s world.
As far as the capitalist point of view is concerned, the classical economists were the first to address the issue of the organisation of labour. Their observations continued up to the final stages of the Industrial Revolution and were basis for the work of Frederic Winslow Taylor. In 1911 he published The Principles of Scientific Management, book containing the concept of scientific management of labour. It looked into the development of management methods and organisation of labour as opposed to technology. Peter F Drucker said: “Scientific management focuses on the work. Its core is the organised study of work, the analysis of work into its simplest elements and the systematic improvement of the worker’s performance of each of these elements.” (Braverman) He also claims that the tools and techniques are easily applicable. Its main role is to study how labour workforce can be adapted to the needs of capital. When capitalist enterprises started to grow, complex problems with the control of labour arose. As opposed to earlier modes of control and management of labour, Taylor argued that individuals and the tasks they perform should be matched. People have different abilities and strengths and therefore their jobs should correspond to their capabilities, whether they are intellectual or physical. It was Taylor’s belief that his concept would achieve the optimum level of production.
Taylor developed his principles of management while a machinist and foreman at the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia. Here he observed the phenomenon called soldiering. In his own words he defines soldiering as “underworking, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid a full day’s work” (Taylor, 1911). He attributed this problem to three causes. Firstly, workers believed that by increasing their production, fewer of them would be needed and therefore some would lose their jobs. Secondly, the inefficiency of management control system made it necessary for each workman to soldier, or work slowly, in order to protect his own best interests. Thirdly, poor design of the performance of workers by rule-of-thumb methods caused workmen to waste a large part of their effort. Convinced that the majority of workers deliberately planned to do as little as they safely could, he devised ways of dealing with this issue. Taylor’s solution to the problem of workers’ inefficiency was the separation of planning from execution. He used the concept of task allocation whereby breaking tasks into smaller and smaller assignments allows the worker to develop optimum efficiency. Prior to scientific management, work was performed by skilled craftsmen who thoroughly understood the entire process of production in their specified field.
In his work he described how changes in the mental attitude and habits of management, as well as workers, could influence production efficiency. The revolutionary changes involved scientifically based selection, training and development of workers. In the past they would choose tasks they wanted to do and would train themselves as best as they could. However, Taylor believed that the highest form of efficiency could only be achieved when a worker carried out tasks for which he had a natural ability. For example a well-built healthy young man would be best suited to do physically demanding form of manual labour such as shovelling. However, even this condition was not specific enough. Depending on the material, workers would handle shovels of weights ranging from 4 pounds to as heavy as 30 pounds. In one case they would be underloaded and optimum day’s work would not be achieved. In the other case, they would get too exhausted and again would not work at the optimal level. After exploring this idea further Taylor worked out the optimum shovel load for workers. This experiment resulted in a series of different shovels being purchased, each for a different material. Another one of the features in Taylor's experiments was stop-watch timing. He started to break the timings down into elements and thanks to him we now use the term 'time study'.
It should also be noted that Taylor made the assumption that personal health of an individual was identical to organisational efficiency. (Grint, 1991)
Taylor tried to find a common ground between workforce and management. This was also to ensure that work would be carried out in accordance with scientifically devised procedures. However, some critics disagreed with Taylor’s view that the interests of workers were identical to those of managers. This style of management was even compared to a kind of industrial slavery.
Main actor in the majority of experiments undertaken was an immigrant called Schmidt. His complete work routine of shovelling pig iron as well as variations in rest times and operating techniques were closely monitored. Implementing the rules of scientific management, Schmidt’s productivity was increased four times in exchange for a 40 per cent wage increase. This trial certainly supports Taylor’s argument and shows that motivation has economic incentives. Nevertheless, physiologist who review the Schmidt experience calculated that the level of output set by Taylor could not be calculated as a standard because “most workers will succumb under the pressure of such amount of labour”. (Friedman, 1964) Even Taylor himself admitted that only unusually fit men could maintain this high level of physical activity.
Taylor’s contributions marked a new era in modern management thought. Although, some analysts think that he did not invent anything new. Rather he just “synthesised and presented as a reasonable coherent ideas which had been germinating and gathering force in Britain and the US throughout the 19th century. He gave to a disconnected series of initiatives and experiments a philosophy and a title. (Urwick and Brech, 1945).
However, Taylor's philosophy was also widely criticised. Many thought that it had a narrow scope of applications and was only suited for shop floor level. It could be said that this theory was based on industrial management rather than management as a whole. The main argument against Taylor’s strategy was its dehumanisation. Workers were viewed as machines rather than human beings. The exact specification of the task along with a specified time allocation for doing this task left no room for a worker to think or excel as an individual. For this reason there was a great deal of opposition from workers and trade unions Breaking tasks into smaller and smaller units may well be a good idea as far as efficiency is concerned. However, repetitive action with no mental requirements soon becomes tedious and causes discontent among workers. The only motivation in this type of work management is monetary.
During the time where this study was devised, many factory workers were either immigrants with poor knowledge of English or other people with the lack of education. Much has happened since scientific management was developed and it can be argued that higher level of education among workers these days defeats the purpose of separating the planning function. Quite the opposite, nowadays it is thought that workers have an intimate knowledge of jobs they perform and therefore are able to make useful suggestions. Also the balance of power between the workers and managers has changed. It is now encouraged to work in teams and to contribute personal observations. Such work arrangements are much better for morale as well as overall work conditions and improve the relations between managers and workers.
Despite its shortcomings, scientific management is an important theory and as a concept of work-measurement and production control it completely changed the nature of industry. It gave rise to the development of departments such as personnel and quality of control, which did not exist before. With new technology being developed every day and companies trying to be as efficient and cost effective as possible, certain aspects of scientific management are still widely used.
Braverman, H., Labour and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century, 1974 -
Friedman, G., Industrial Society, 1964, p.90, p.109 -
Grint, K., The Sociology of Work, 1991 p.121 -
Taylor F.W., The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911 -
Urwick Lyndall, Brech E.F.L., The Making of Scientific Management, London, 1945, Vol. 1, p.17 -