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Business

Understanding Taylorism: The History of Scientific Management Theory

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 26, 2020 • 4 min read

In 1911 Frederick Winslow Taylor published his monograph “The Principles of Scientific Management.” Taylor argued that flaws in a given work process could be scientifically solved through improved management methods and that the best way to increase labor productivity was to optimize the manner in which the work was done. Taylor’s methods for improving worker productivity can still be seen today at companies, in modern militaries, and even in the world of professional sports.

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What Is Scientific Management?

Scientific management, also often known as Taylorism, is a management theory first advocated by Federick W. Taylor. It uses scientific methods to analyze the most efficient production process in order to increase productivity. Taylor’s scientific management theory argued it was the job of workplace managers to develop the proper production system for achieving economic efficiency. Although the terms “scientific management” and “Taylorism” are commonly used interchangeably, it would be more precise to say that Taylorism was the first form of scientific management.

4 Principles of Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor devised the following four scientific management principles that are still relevant to this day:

  1. Select methods based on science, not “rule of thumb.” Rather than allowing each individual worker the freedom to use their own “rule of thumb” method to complete a task, you should instead use the scientific method to determine the “one best way” to do the job.
  2. Assign workers jobs based on their aptitudes. Instead of randomly assigning workers to any open job, assess which ones are most capable of each specific job and train them to work at peak efficiency.
  3. Monitor worker performance. Assess your workers’ efficiency and provide additional instruction when necessary to guarantee they are working productively.
  4. Properly divide the workload between managers and workers. Managers should plan and train, while workers should implement what they’ve been trained to do.
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A Brief History of Scientific Management Theory

Federick Taylor became inspired to create his theories while working as an employee of the United States steel manufacturer, Bethlehem Steel. It was as that steel company he observed that the managers barely knew anything about how specific jobs were actually performed.

He began to design workplace experiments that would influence his famous principles of management. One experiment involved improving shoveling efficiency by designing new shovels that were optimized for different materials. Another famous example involved using a stopwatch and biomechanical analysis to concoct a better method for workers to carry pig iron onto railroad cars. On the first day using his new method, the amount of pig iron the workers were able to transport almost tripled. These and other time and motion studies became the origins of Taylor’s theory of management.

Although he’s known as the father of scientific management, Federick Taylor initially called his method “shop management.” He ended up adopting the term “scientific management” in 1911 after it was popularized in a court case by future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis with the help of mechanical engineer Henry L. Gantt.

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Time Studies vs. Motion Studies: How Are They Different?

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Both time studies and motion studies are business efficiency techniques developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to improve mass production. While mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor devoted most of his work to time studies, efficiency and industrial engineering experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth focused on motion studies. Taylor’s work focused mainly on reducing process time, while the Gilbreths’ work optimized processes by reducing the amount of motions involved. Here’s a more in-depth look at each study type:

  • Time studies: Taylor thought reducing the time to complete a task was the primary way to increase labor productivity. He advocated for conducting time studies wherein he would divide work into specific tasks, use a stopwatch to time each element of the task, and then reorder the elements into an optimal sequence. Taylor’s time studies emphasized maximizing profit.
  • Motion studies: Rather than only using a stopwatch to time workers, the Gilbreths advocated for filming workers (using a 35mm hand-crank camera) in order to have a visual guide of how a task was completed. This way they could not only track the time it took to finish the task but also analyze areas for improvement. Additionally, the films could even be shown to workers so they could see firsthand how they could enhance their techniques. The Gilbreth’s motion studies placed a much higher emphasis on worker well-being than did Taylor’s principles. After Taylor’s death, this key variation ended up causing many disputes between the Gilbreths and other Taylorist thinkers.

Taylorism vs. Fordism: What’s the Difference?

Fordism describes the method of mass production using assembly line technology that was invented in the early twentieth century by mechanical engineer and Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford. Frederick Taylor actually coined the term “Fordism” when he accused Ford of removing the pride that human beings took in their jobs and creating a labor force of unskilled workers who were merely cogs in the machine. It’s often assumed that Taylorism was a starting point for the manufacturing processes developed by Ford, but it’s more likely that any influence on Ford from Taylorism was mostly coincidental.

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