Scientific management involves study of the production process in an effort to discover means to eliminate waste of workers’ time and effort. Evolving from research on conservation of production resources, the field surged in 1911, when Frederick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management. Here and elsewhere, Taylor critiqued traditional managerial roles for leaving responsibility for production methods to “wasteful” workers and advocated a more active role for management.
Taylor recommended that managers observe the most productive workers (usually with “time studies” of task elements), determine and standardize the “one best way” to perform each task, match workers to positions according to their capacities, train them in procedures, and ensure their cooperation by providing help, supervision, and daily bonuses for meeting targets. Principally, Taylor encouraged managers to remove the “brain work” from manual labor and to concentrate it among a separate pool of production planners (to whom workers could make suggestions). In doing so, he noted that planners would invariably suggest further task segmentation and that managers would take over much or all of workers’ decision-making responsibilities.
Comparatively, other pioneers in scientific management, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, were more concerned with the condition of workers—seeking to increase productivity by eliminating unnecessary fatigue. Their “motion studies”—accomplished first with descriptions and illustrations and then with “micro-motion” films—illuminated a range of variables (in addition to time) with room for elimination of waste. In their most celebrated research, they reduced bending and lifting among bricklayers and tripled their hourly output.
Scientific management vastly increased productivity. However, the mutual economic benefit predicted by its earliest pioneers did not materialize, as employers received the bulk of economic rewards. In any case, social scientists have long argued that workers have desires apart from money and that scientific management techniques deny their needs. In the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett drew attention to workers’ non-economic needs and potential to contribute, and Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne studies demonstrated that positive attention to these needs could enhance productivity— a topic subsequently taken up by the human relations school of management.
Since that time, it has become clear that scientific management has had overwhelmingly negative consequences for the experience of work. Optimistic confidence that the approach would engender mutual respect between workers and managers has given way to the realization that workers forced to “check their brains at the door” are often deprived of dignity at work and have little leverage to bargain for better conditions. The potential for negative consequences heightens when existing job structures do not allow all workers to rise to their level of ability as Taylor presumed. The result is often withdrawal of cooperation, including absenteeism, strikes, and withholding of information and effort—sometimes characterized as the irrationality of an overly rationalized system. Paradoxically, some of the solutions proposed and employed—including internal labor markets, quality of work life programs, job rotation, and worker participation regimes—include aspects of the work relationship proposed in the writings of Taylor and the Gilbreths.
- Gilbreth, Frank B. and Lillian M. Gilbreth. 1917. Applied Motion Study: A Collection of Papers on the Efficient Method to Industrial Preparedness. New York: Sturgis & Walton.
- Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1947. Scientific Management, Comprising Shop Management, The Principles of Scientific Management [and] Testimony before the Special House Committee. New York: Harper.
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