The Science of Management Revisited

How far have we come in 100 years?

In 1911, Frederick W. Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” (read it directly at that link for free, thanks to the Google scanning initiative).

It makes remarkable reading today.  Taylor’s proposition was simple.  We need to stop just looking for talented people, and better train and organize normal people.   Management is a science—the science of efficiency.  It applies to all jobs, and all who use it benefit.

Workers themselves are incapable—“stupid” is his preferred word—of understanding the scientific principles that maximize their efficiency.  Ditto even for initiative.  The job of management is to define people’s jobs in extraordinary detail, and to provide initiative. 

“Workmen will not submit to this more rigid standardization and will not work extra hard, unless they receive extra pay for doing it… management must inform [the worker] at frequent intervals as to the progress he is making, so that hey may not unintentionally fall off in his pace…the workman alone even with full knowledge of the new methods and with the best of intentions could not attain these startling results.”

“The average workman must be able to measure what he has accomplished and clearly see his rewards at the end of each day if he is to do his best…cooperation or “profit-sharing”…have been at the best only mildly effective in stimulating men to work hard.  The nice time which they are sure to have today if they take things easily and go slowly proves more attractive than steady hard work with a possible reward to be shared with others six months later.”

Taylor is most famous for his remarkably detailed time and motion studies of activities like shoveling coal and transporting pig iron to a rail car.   It’s easy to read Taylor as quaint.  To the objection that measuring coal-shovelers and pig-iron handlers is irrelevant to advanced workers, Taylor responds with—time and motion studies of lathe-cutters. 

But in fact, Taylor is very much with us today.

A recent emailing from Harvard Business School Publishing headlines, “If You’re Not Measuring Marketing, You’re Not Marketing.” 
It advertises a CD-ROM on Measuring Marketing Performance that tells you “how to create a marketing dashboard that can reveal the true performance of the company’s marketing activities. The dashboard can be used to inform boards of directors and senior leaders as to how well their marketing efforts are supporting customers’ needs.” 

The only thing Taylor would argue with is whether the shovelers are intelligent enough to provide the data on shoveling with which they are to be measured.  

The ubiquity of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (see here, or here, or here),while transparently false and based on a misreading of Taylor, is testimony to the pervasiveness of his influence.
What we have taken—and kept—from Taylor is a passion for breaking things down into tiny tasks, measured in tiny units of time.  Technology and process engineering have enabled us to extend this philosophy to unprecedented levels.  We have come to believe that basically all management is a variation on workflow design—if we measure precisely enough, and mete out just the right carrots and sticks, we will produce a perpetual motion/money machine. 

It is easy to caricature Frederick Taylor, despite the ways in which we continue to emulate him.  But he was wise in ways we have conveniently forgotten.  The "management equals measurement" people treat measurement as both necessary and sufficient; Taylor only argued the former.

“The mechanism of management must not be mistaken for its essence, or underlying philosophy…when elements of this mechanism, such as time study, are used without being accompanied by the true philosophy of management, the results are in many cases disastrous….the really great problem involved in a change from the management of “initiative and incentive” to scientific management consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all those engaged in the management, as well also the workman…this change…is a matter of from two to three years, and in some cases it requires from four to five years."

Plus ca change…

4 replies
  1. Evan Zall
    Evan Zall says:

    A question: are you endorsing micromanagement and a micro-reward system, or condemning it as an unfortunate holdover from a pre-industrialized U.S.?  Or neither, and I’m missing the point?

    I’ve seen empowerment as the critical factor to creating an inspired and thriving professional workforce.  Lacking that element and leaning on measurement, organizations fail to achieve the trust and transparency necessary to thrive in our current culture. 

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Evan, I think I’m pretty much with you. 

    Taylor himself reads a little bit contradictory to the modern reader. On the one hand, he states ringingly that the purpose of scientific management is to benefit managers and workers alike. He is as devoted to workers as to shareholders.  (Though he never mentions customers).

    And while he’s shockingly un-politically correct in his discussion of "stupid" workers, he means it mainly to get managers to take on responsibility, instead of complaining about bad workers.

    Finally, while he does believe in micro-management and certainly in micro-data, he explicitly notes that it takes serious joint, emotional, collaborative time for workers and management to trust each other and to contribute to the success.

    My own view is we’ve so narrowly defined "science" as to exclude the change management component, which Taylor himself claims is critical.

    My own view is also that the problem is not micro-measurement, but micro-management.  That lesson, which he was clear about, we have not learned.  We think that because we can measure something, we should manage it.   The simple truth is, the best short-term metrics come not from managing them, but from managing on the long term basis so that the short term results naturally flow from those longer-term principles.  This is precisely what Taylor warned against 100 years ago in the section I quoted above.  And he was railing against this tendency in his own time.  The desire for the short-term quick fix shortcut runs deep.

    A great example is in this week’s One to One Weekly maagazine, on the decline in call center service levels.  See:

  3. Consensio
    Consensio says:

    Taylorism is a symptom of the Western industrialization and the result of so-called scientific enlightenment. The need to rationalize and compartmentalize has resulted in this:

    "The human at work is a rational/economic being who will trade human discretion and social interaction for money. Managers make decisions, control is assumed, training is task oriented. People act as extensions of machines. A person is a redundant part."

    Managers live in ‘Philosophy, assumptions and theory=”The Talk”.

    Employees live in organisation and practice. =”The Walk”.

    This is the true philosophy of Taylorism.

  4. Mark Federman
    Mark Federman says:

    The biggest problem with Taylor (among many) is that he was a liar and a fraud – certainly not to be trusted. The short version of the reality behind Principles of Scientific Management: F.W. Taylor approached Bethlehem Iron (the precursor to Bethlehem Steel), with a proposition to increase efficiency in exchange for the ability to purchase stock at below-market prices. His time-and-motion efficiency methods, coupled with his proposition that people who "work" can’t and shouldn’t "think," but should only be motivated through appeal to their personal economic interest (i.e., piecework incentive pay) led to falsified observations and measurements, severly damaged pig-iron train carriages, and laid the foundations for much that is wrong with the dominance of myopically-focused quantitative analysis and abstract empicism.

    These are two good references that reveal what actually went on at the time: Cossette, P. (2002). Analysing the thinking of F.W. Taylor using cognitive mapping. Management Decision, 40(1/2), 168-182.
    Wrege, C., D., & Hodgetts, R., M. (2000). Frederick W. Taylor’s 1899 pig iron observations: Examining fact, fiction, and lessons for the new millennium. Academy of Management Journal, 43(6), 1283-1291.

    It is notable that no other iron company adopted Taylor’s methods, that were soon also dropped by Bethlehem. However, in the famous Congressional hearings that were the precursor to Principles of Scientific Management, easily buffaloed Congressmen bought Taylor’s dubious logic hook, line, and sinker, primarily, I suspect, because they were of the same mentality as the "owners" and nominally "thinking" managers.



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