The Principles of Scientific Management

It is easy to look at the five principles of scientific management and ask how, conceived 90 odd years ago, they can still be relevant to a 21st century company. They appear outdated, and research since their inception has gone some way to prove that not all of Taylor’s ideas were right, particularly regarding motivation. This essay will go some way to support that view by examining two of the main criticisms of Taylor. However, the main thrust of this essay will revolve around the premise that the main ideas of Taylorism are more relevant now to companies than ever before, and that, perhaps in a different guise and slightly modified, it could be one of the most important work design theories of the future.

Taylor was born in 1856 to a wealthy family in Philadelphia. He went to work for Midvale Steel in 1878, and had reached the role of superintendent by 1887. It was in this role that Taylor noticed that workers used different, inefficient working techniques, and that they did not work at the speed of which he considered them capable of. Huczynski & Buchanan (2001) tells us that Taylor decided to introduce a new way of working that would have three main goals. Firstly, he wanted to increase efficiency by increasing the productivity of workers; secondly he wanted a higher level of predictability in a job, which would be achieved by fragmenting tasks and standardizing the; finally he wanted to give management greater control of the work force, which would be established through discipline and a strict line of command. Through these three objectives, Taylor established five main principles of his theory.

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* There would be a clear division of tasks between management and workers

* Scientific methods would be used to determine the best way of doing a job

* Scientific selection of the person to do the newly defined job

* Training of the person to the job in the way specified.

* Surveillance of workers through the use of close supervision and strict lines of responsibility

This essay will now go onto examine two of the main criticisms of Taylor.

Firstly, Taylor’s simplistic assumption regarding the immediate relationship between monetary incentive and the performance of a task (Patota, 1999). This refers to his idea that money is the single motivator for employees, and his conclusion that piece rate payment systems would be the best way of motivating employees. This has been disproved significantly since, by many researchers. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows that money is not the sole motivator for people at work (Robertson and Smith, 1985). He said that people have nine innate needs, with each one needing to be fulfilled before progress can be made on the next need, and therefore allowing motivation to increase. Pay can help achieve only the two most basic needs, Biological Needs (By helping to buy food and water) and Safety Needs (By paying to provide shelter and security). The many higher order needs, such as the Need To Understand, or the Need For Freedom Of Enquiry cannot be fulfilled by paying ‘a fair days work for a fair days pay'(Huczynski & Buchanan, 2001) as Ford, a strong exponent of Taylorism, said. Maslow’s theory appears to show that workers could never be highly motivated while working for a company that practised the principles of scientific management.

Hertzberg, in a 1973 BBC film, further criticised Taylor’s adoption of piece rate payment methods, claiming that they would fail to fully satisfy his ‘hygiene’ factors appropriately, and that a salary payment system was by far the best way of meeting an employees pay demands. Hackman and Oldham (1975), suggested that there were five main job characteristics that would motivate. They were variety of work, working on an identifiable product, working on a task that has impact on others, autonomy and feedback. Not only is pay missing from this list of motivational factors, the ideas of team working and variety are polar opposites to the Taylorism principles of individualism and specialisation.

The second criticism of Taylor this essay will look at is his failure to give any attention to the psychological impacts of the labour activities (Patota, 1999). As early as 1916, Gilbreth’s book, The Psychology of Management, was highlighting the importance of psychological factors in a company (Gilbreth and Gilbreth, 1916). Taylor attaches little or no importance to the levels of job satisfaction his workers have. Robertson and Smith (1985), summarise various research when they say that psychologists have established strong relationships between job satisfaction and lateness, absenteeism and labour turnover. (This would appear to be supported by the fact that in 1913, labour turnover at Ford was 380% (Huczynski & Buchanan, 2001)). It goes on to say that it appears that if jobs do not satisfy workers motives, then employees will tend to withdraw from work at the slightest excuse. The consequences of this withdrawal, such as the ones listed above, often has a direct impact on profitability. Huczynski and Buchanan, (2001), goes further, saying that Taylor’s ‘One Best Way’ was chosen with the criteria of speed and increased output, with no regard given to the psychological detriments incurred. The introduction of a single, monotonous type of work can both destroy individuality and cause other psychological problems.

After looking at two of the main criticisms of Taylorism, the essay will now look at why scientific management is both still relevant, and still in use today. This section will examine three main areas, that of deskilling, so-called ‘McDonaldization’ and the similarities between ‘Japanization’ and Taylorism. Firstly, deskilling.

Deskilling as a theory first appeared in Harry Braverman’s 1974 book, Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. A quick summary of the book comes from Crompton and Jones (1984). They said that Braverman argued the logic of capitalist production is such that it leads to the inevitable deskilling of the labour process, to progressively render work increasingly routine and fragmented. Braverman argued that work had become, and was increasingly so, deskilled, just as Taylor had suggested. Wood (1982) further emphasised the link by saying that Taylor was the first management theorist to recognise the importance of control. The singular most important idea of scientific management, Braverman states, is that it divorces planning from execution, such that management is totally responsible for planning and design of tasks, and that workers are restricted to simple manual operations. Taylor believes all mental and manual labour should be separated, such that no ‘thinking’ takes place on the shop floor. This, Wood stresses, is the deskilling to which Braverman refers. Work is progressively degraded until all elements of knowledge, judgement and responsibility have been stripped away, as Taylor stressed in his principles of scientific management.

Braverman believed that Taylorism was now an institutionalized part of the workplace, and that it formed the basis of control in many companies. Although Braverman has a wide range of criticisms (to many to go into here in respect of the word limit), there is still strong support for what he had to say, as suggested by Armstrong (1998). He implied that Braverman’s thesis should be looked at as something that proposes a general tendency for deskilling, rather than a universal law. Taylorism is a central part of this theory, which implies that the Taylorism ideas of control and separation are alive and kicking today.

In 1993, George Ritzer published his book, The McDonaldization of Society. This book carried a similar vein to Braverman’s, but is more topical. Ritzer (1993) notes that a manual was given to each new ‘crew’ member at a McDonalds, which tells them exactly how to pull milk shakes, grill hamburgers and fry potatoes. It specified precise cooking times for all products and temperature settings for all equipment. It fixed standard portions on every food item, down to the quarter ounce of onions placed on each hamburger. As you can see, there is no room for employee individuality. Everyone has their own job, everyone prepares food and drink by the correct procedure. That process has been created to be the most efficient available. The interesting point to note here, as Noon and Blyton (2002) do, is that one of the world’s biggest multi-nationals relies on labour management techniques that were developed at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, Taylor himself would certainly have recognised and endorsed the ideas of rationality upon which McDonald’s is organised.

However, Ritzer was not only talking about McDonalds. He was referring to a wider range of companies, and a general ethos of deskilling throughout multi-nationals. Another example of where scientific management is still being used is the building industry. The identical rows of buildings that now spring up are built to a strict plan, with no deviance of work. Each builder knows his job inside out, and performs that daily. An example of this comes again from Ritzer (1993). He talks about the construction of ‘Levittown’, in America. Between 1947 and 1951, Levit and Son’s constructed 17,447 homes on Long Island, using scientific management techniques. To quote Ritzer,

‘Thus, the Levitts rationalized the work of the construction labourer much as Ford had done with the automobile worker, with much the same attitude toward the worker’

He goes on to say that McDonaldization, based on the ideas of Taylorism and rationalism, has spread to take in other industries, including health care and higher-education. This would appear to show that the ideas of rationality, finding the ‘one best way’ and sticking too it, of Taylor is gaining more credence, not less.

Finally, this essay looks at Taylorism and Japanization. It is often said that Japanization is the complete opposite to Taylorism. After all, it contains team working, quality management and a breaking down of so called ‘them and us’ attitudes. However, there is evidence to suggest that they are not that different from one another, and British companies introducing the techniques are merely introducing a more subtle version of Taylorism

It seems that the ideas of control and discipline are shared between both production techniques. For instance, the idea of ‘lean production’ transpires into no more than ‘no break or respite from the continuous grind of mass production’ (Noon and Blyton, 2002). The Japanese way, suggests Danford (1998) involves an obsession with reducing idle time and squeezing out sixty minutes of useful work from every worker in every hour. He goes on to provide an example of how a bell is rung in Japanese factories to signal the lunch break. Exactly twenty seven minutes later, another bell is rung, signalling that workers must return to their workstations. All workers must then be ready, tools in hand, to begin work. Three minutes later, a final bell is rung and work commences. Anybody not in place when the twenty seven minute bell is rung faces a disciplinary procedure. This appears to be less like flexible working, and more a return to the Taylorism idea’s of maximum efficiency.

There are further similarities. Wood (1989), and Danford (1998), argue that kaizen and quality circles are nothing more than ways of controlling and exploiting labour. These ideas of management involve workers becoming involved in generating ideas that will give their employers higher levels of capital and labour utilisation and an intensification of their labour. What, they argue, is this, more than a sophisticated form of worker subordination? This would suggest that Kaizen, and quality circles, represent not a shift away from Taylorism, but a more a procedure which allows managers to closely monitor workers why they suggest ideas that will make the job more ‘Taylorised’. After all, management are not going to implement changes to a job that make it less efficient are they?

Danford (1998), also states that production planners use forecasts to issue daily production plans which incorporate any final day to day adjustments. From these, tightly controlled product despatch timetables are produced. The punishments for not meeting these is high, particularly if there is a just in time system in place. This bears a striking resemblance to the Fordist assembly lines, where the speed at which employees worked was controlled by the speed of the assembly lines. There is no room for individuals to complain, or work at different speeds, according to Wood (1989).

There are many writers who argue that as a whole, Japanese management innovations constitute sophisticated systems of management which border on total control (Danford 1998). Taylor argued that control over the workforce was one, if not the, most important thing management should have. The evidence above supports the theory that Japanese managers agree with him.

In conclusion, it is easy to look at Taylor’s principles, indeed the ideas of scientific management, and ask how such archaic ideas could ever be relevant today. They seem outdated, and tired. It seems that yes, Taylorism may have been appropriate under conditions that suited it such as a large labour supply and growth markets, but it may have reached the limits of effectiveness in markets that present it with different circumstances. This coupled with research done by psychologists regarding motivation would appear to make Taylorism irrelevant. Taylor believed people were motivated to work simply for money. That has, of course, been proved wrong as shown above.

Despite this, I think scientific management is still very relevant for businesses, but not in the original sense of which it was constructed by Taylor. The evidence of Braverman and Ritzer, with their deskilling and McDonaldization theories shows that scientific management is still important today. Ritzer argues that its impact, negative though it may be, is spreading into a wide range if areas.

However, I think it’s the evidence linking Japanization with Taylorism that proves it is relevant now more than ever. The three objectives of Taylorism, efficiency, predictability, and, most importantly, control could be used to describe exactly the objectives of Japanization. Idea’s such as kaizen and TQM involve complex means of worker control with the aim of greater efficiency; Lean production is about also about efficiency. In the Japanese model, which is being adopted all over the world, we see that efficiency comes from control, similar to Fordism. It is the wielding of the control over the workforce that will help a company employing Japanese methods of production succeeds nothing else. Japanization contains all the main points of Taylorism. It is just a more sophisticated way of achieving the same goals and objectives of scientific management. This means Taylorism is still as relevant now as it was 90 years ago.


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The Principles of Scientific Management. (2017, Oct 11). Retrieved from