Taylorism is a set of ideas regarding factory management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States under the name of “scientific management.” The core of Taylorism is a system of task management in which managers and engineers are responsible for planning and task optimization, primarily through motion and time study, while workers are responsible for carrying out discrete tasks as directed.
The so-called scientific management movement, which began in earnest in the late 19th century, drew on some earlier ideas, most famously those of Charles Babbage(1791-1871)and W. S. Jevons(1835-1882). Babbage emphasized how the division of labor within the factory contributes to operational efficiency by subdividing work into distinct tasks that could be completed by specialists. Both Babbage and Jevons advocated the systematic analysis of work, including collection and use of data obtained by observing work processes.
Toward the end of the 19th century, managers began to encounter new problems as the size of factories grew due to increasing consolidation of operations under newly formed joint-stock companies. Managers and engineers began to focus on problems of “shop management,” such as plant layout, production processes, and incentive and wage systems. During this time Taylor began to develop his ideas, first at the Midvale Steel Company in Pennsylvania from 1878 through the 1880s, and later when it became the Bethlehem Steel Company. Taylor sought to remedy a number of problems he saw with traditional management, which left workers to complete the work as they pleased—using “rules of thumb”— and encouraged “systematic soldiering,” or the restriction of output by workers.
In Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management of 1911, he outlined and illustrated four main principles of scientific management: (1) the development of “scientific knowledge” or standard procedures to replace rules of thumb; (2) the systematic selection of and training of workers for the correct jobs or tasks; (3) inducing them to work to standard through “watchfulness” and a “large daily bonus”; and (4) “an almost equal division of the work and responsibility between the workman and the management.” The last point is part of Taylor’s emphasis on “harmonious cooperation” between labor and management, where managers take on all responsibilities for the planning of work and workers simply follow the prescribed routine.
Another important element of Taylorism is the ideas of Frank B. and Lillian Gilbreth (1868-1924 and 1878-1972) on motion study and industrial psychology. The Gilbreths focused on the best method to perform an operation and reduce fatigue by studying body motions, attempting to eliminate unnecessary ones and simplify necessary ones to discover the optimal sequence of motions.
The content of Taylorism has shifted over time, moving somewhat away from the ideas Taylor and the Gilbreths originally articulated. Taylor argued that other important elements of scientific management included extra pay for the extra hard work and rigid standardization of the system, careful attention to not overextending workers, listening to workers’ ideas and compensating them for adopted improvements, a system of functional foremen, and study of worker motivation. Much of this has been lost in the subsequent development of Taylorism into a management system. Both Taylor and the Gilbreths were careful to warn against overwork. However, as the system was diffused and elaborated, Taylorism commonly came to be understood primarily as an emphasis on breaking down work into discrete tasks that can be analyzed for waste through motion and time study. In addition to sharply limiting worker autonomy, the system has often been experienced by workers—and denounced by unions—as a form of work speedup, leading to many problems in the workplace, such as increased worker stress, resentment, and dissatisfaction, often resulting in labor-management conflict, individual forms of resistance like work sabotage, and organized forms of resistance.
Taylorism is an important part of the model of traditional mass production often referred to as “Fordism,” which was developed in the United States and became the dominant form of production in most industrialized countries, particularly after World War II. As a model of work organization, Fordism refers to the supply-driven, mass production of standardized goods using semi-skilled workers. Taylorism is key to Fordism because it contributes to efficiency improvements via scale economies through the separation of conception from execution—often understood as a process of deskilling—as managers and engineers in the planning department are responsible for breaking down tasks into their simplest operations and determining standards, while workers are expected only to execute their tasks as directed.
Taylorist methods have been used widely in all manufacturing sectors in developed and developing countries and were also embraced by the Soviet Union under Lenin. However, the ideal of complete separation of conception and execution was not fully realized in most places. One reason for its imperfect realization was resistance by workers and unions. Perhaps more important, in order for many factories to operate smoothly on a daily basis, workers had to retain and exercise some amount of discretion to deal with problems in the planning process.
Though the Fordist model is increasingly being replaced by post-Fordist forms of production, such as the demand-driven model of lean production, the status of Taylorist methods in the post-Fordist labor process is debated among scholars. Taylorist methods are widely used in service industries today, as exemplified by the extreme task division and standardization in the fast-food industry as pioneered by McDonald’s. Another example of Taylorist standardization in services is scripted talk required in a wide range of industries in which workers must interact with customers, from restaurants to retail stores to call centers. In the manufacturing sector, however, some argue that post-Fordist models like lean production have initiated a reintegration of conception and execution, hence overturning the Taylorist model. However, as many observers have noted, although lean production methods explicitly aim to induce workers to contribute ideas for continuous process improvement, work remains highly regimented into discrete tasks, and a primary goal is to develop new and improved work standards through, among other things, detailed motion and time study. Thus, many see lean production methods as a form of neo-Taylorism that engages workers in setting and developing new standards.
- Taylor, Frederick Winslow.  1998. The Principles of Scientific Management. Mineola, NY: Dover.
- Vidal, Matt. 2007. “Manufacturing Empowerment? ‘Employee Involvement’ in the Labor Process after Fordism.” Socio-Economic Review 5(2): 197-232.
- Wren, Daniel A. 2004. The History of Management Thought. 5th ed. New York: Wiley.
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