“Principles of Scientific Management”

October 1st, 2012

Summary for those not wishing to read 1000 words: a book published in 1911 and mostly concerned with the performance of men doing backbreaking physical labour continues to have a disconcerting influence on management today.

If you go to a bookshop, or surf through the pages of Amazon, you’ll find a colossal number of books for businesspeople. Most of these are about leadership and productivity – how to be better at your job and (often) how to get other people to do better at theirs. This blog post is about the grandfather of all of these books – “The Principles of Scientific Management”, published in 1911 by Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor was an American, a mechanical engineer, and had worked his way up from the shop floor. His book still shapes a lot of corporate thinking today, and yet very few people I meet have ever heard of him. Here’s a short summary of what he has to say.

He argues that the interests of employer and employees are in fact aligned – both should be interested in the continuing prosperity of the company: the employer in terms of dividend, the employee in terms of wages. He also points out that good management should help each employee find the work that best suits them, and help them develop their skills. However, his main point concerns the problem of “soldiering” as it was called in the US: workers in factories trying to do as little work as they can get away with during their working day. This practice was particularly widespread at the time – a culture developed amongst factory workers that greater productivity per worker would result in some staff being laid off (on the basis that the amount of work required was fixed) and that those that were able to work quickly should slow down in order to protect the jobs of those that could only work more slowly. Taylor points out that supply and demand economics generally means that higher workforce productivity results in lower sale prices and increased sale volumes, meaning that demand for the product actually increases, making more work, not less. In this regard, he is almost certainly correct! Taylor raises his voice against the trade unionists of the time, who were largely responsible for curtailing the productivity of their members. Of course, there was also an issue of fairness: if all workers are paid the same, why would you work harder than your colleagues?

Taylor goes a step further and notes that most workers could work faster if they needed to, but they try and conceal from their employers exactly how fast the job really could be done…

In the main part of the book, Taylor notes the lack of standardisation within most trades. This is logical – skilled workers at that time learned through apprenticeship, by copying an experienced master. Each had their own methods that they passed on to their apprentices. Taylor points out that in a factory with thousands of workers, standardisation of the best method must take place in order to achieve the best productivity. So, how do we do this?

This is the essence: study the methods using the tools of science – observation and experiment – to determine the best method. Teach that method to every worker, and train them to do it well. The management should “heartily cooperate” with the workforce to ensure that the work is done according to the method. Finally, “the management take over all the work for which they are better fitted than the workmen” ensuring “an equal division of labour between management and workforce”. By this last statement, Taylor means that all of the planning and organising of the work should be taken on by the management (whereas traditionally the craftsman worker would have done it himself). The idea here is to remove from the workforce the responsibility for determining how best to do their work – instead, they should do as they are told by the “planner” or manager.

Taylor illustrates his point by describing the work of pig-iron handlers in a steelworks. The pig iron handler “stoops down, picks up a pig weighing 92lbs (that’s 40kg), walks for a few yards and drops it onto the ground or on a pile”. He says “the work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pig-iron handler than any man could be.”

Taylor then goes into a long explanation of his “experiment” with the pig-iron handlers. He essentially determined that by having a manager stand over the workforce with a stopwatch, telling them when to work and when to rest, and (crucially) by paying the men more to participate in the experiment, he improved their productivity dramatically.

Most of the rest of Taylor’s book is taken up with the details of exactly how much work can be extracted from manual labourers. This is early ergonomics stuff – how big a shovel should you use to shovel coal?

At the end of the book, Taylor counsels against the blunt application of his system, warning that many workers will resent a system that dictates their work so precisely unless there’s something in it for them, in the form of higher wages and a good relationship with management.

However, viewed with the benefit of a century of hindsight, we can see why Taylor’s book was a success: his approach reinforces the prejudice of the management that workers are merely interchangeable parts in the vast machine of the firm. So much of his methods relates to managing teams of men doing backbreaking physical work like lifting 40kg iron bars (to give you an idea, under British safety legislation any item weighing over 25kg is considered a two-person lift) or shovelling iron ore. These jobs are better done by machines – and indeed they soon were. Whilst Taylor correctly grasps the importance of the idea of the “best way” to do a job, the idea that determining this best way is solely the role of management is a pervasive and unhelpful myth. Where Taylor is right is that the system of work is the responsibility of the management, and that providing the most efficient system possible is best for the company. But improvements to the system need to come from both the management and the workforce, with the workforce being motivated through encouragement and not through fear.

2 Responses to ““Principles of Scientific Management””

  1. Richard Ash Says:

    Even the idea that there is a “Best Way” to do a job only applies to a fairly narrow spectrum of human endeavor, where there is an absolute measure of “best” and the circumstances are sufficiently controlled that the same solution continues to come out on top. This basically restricts you to factory-type jobs dealing with uniform inputs to produce identical outputs – which are pretty rare in the west these days. As soon as you add something non-uniform (say, people) into the mix, defining the “Best Way” becomes pretty dangerous.

  2. Michael P-J Says:

    Richard: I agree, though I’d argue that there is still a lot of value in having defined business processes that allow people to get stuff done efficiently without having to reinvent the wheel every time. The key thing is to recognise that at times those defined processes need to be over-ridden or changed rather than allowing the company to stagnate.

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