Tailoring Taylor for today

Monday, 21 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Frederick Winslow Taylor is widely regarded as the father of scientific management. I come across him every year in the teaching during the first term of our MBA program. He devised a system called scientific management, a form of industrial engineering that established the organisation of work as in Ford’s assembly line. Is scientific management relevant today? Are the key concepts of it applicable to the modern day workplace? Is there any specific application for Sri Lankan workforce? Today’s column will shed light into these aspects.


Taylor in focus

Taylor (March 20, 1856 – March 21, 1915) was an American mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency. Peter Drucker, another veteran management thinker describes Taylor as follows:

Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last 75 years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of 60 years.

Taylor, born in Philadelphia, prepared for college at Philips Academy in Exeter, N.H., and was accepted at Harvard. His eyesight failed and he became an industrial apprentice in the depression of 1873. At Exeter he was influenced by the classification system invented by Melvil Dewey in 1872 (Dewey Decimal System). He became in 1878 a machine shop labourer at Midvale Steel Company. In the following book he describes some of his promotions to gang-boss, foreman, and finally, chief engineer.

He introduced time-motion studies in 1881 (with ideas of Frank B. and Lillian M. Gilbreth, another pair of researchers). In 1883 he earned a degree by night study from Stevens Institute of Technology. He became general manager of Manufacturing Investment Company, 1890, and then a consulting engineer to management.

Taylor and “Taylorism”

Taylor’s ideas, clearly enunciated in his writings, were widely misinterpreted. Employers used time and motion studies simply to extract more work from employees at less pay. Unions condemned speedups and the lack of voice in their work that “Taylorism” gave them. Quality and productivity declined when his principles were simplistically instituted.

Modern management theorists, such as Edward Deming, often credit Taylor, however, with generating the principles upon which they act. Others, such as Juran, though, continue to denigrate his work. Modern theorists generally place more emphasis on worker input and teamwork than was usual in much of Taylor’s time. A careful reading of Taylor’s work will reveal that he placed the worker’s interest as high as the employer’s in his studies, and recognised the importance of the suggestion box, for example, in a machine shop.

Despite the imbalanced way of usage, Taylor’s ideas have their validity even today. He will long be remembered as a great contributor to the evolving world of management thinking.

Spectrum of scientific management

According to Morgan Vitzel, who wrote an article titled, “where Scientific Management went awry”, the whole approach brought professionalism based on knowledge and scientific principles. It galvanised American industry and made possible the huge gains in productivity and prosperity of the early twentieth century. To its detractors, scientific management or ‘Taylorism’ represents everything that is bad about the capitalist system: deskilling, dehumanising, the death of the craft production system, the dominance of capital over labour, and American economic imperialism in the guise of promoting a ‘one best way’ to manage.

Briefly, the key aim of Scientific Management was to analyse jobs very carefully into their smallest aspects, scrutinise the capabilities of the human machine just as carefully, and then fit the two together to achieve the greatest economy. Job techniques would be redesigned to make maximum use of human abilities; humans would be trained to perform the jobs optimally.

Scientific management did result in greater professionalism on the part of both managers and workers. The benefits of precise measurement, research and planning were widely acknowledged. At the same time, the introduction of scientific management was not without its problems, which were magnified when attempts were made to introduce the theory outside the US.

In Britain, the concept met with widespread resistance. In France, it became the subject of a sterile professional feud but had little impact on business. In the Soviet Union, where scientific management was greeted with enthusiasm, the end result was tragedy: a warped version of Taylor’s theories that was known as the Stakhanovite system, ended in thousands of Soviet workers and their families banished to the gulags for missing production quotas.

Taylor and his colleagues, especially Henry Gantt and the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, believed that they were acting in the best interests of the workers. Taylor himself was firmly convinced that “Scientifically managed workplaces would be more attractive to workers, not only for their higher wages but for the security they offered.” And Henry Gantt argued: “Poor management usually means poor wages. Good management means good wages, for the high efficiency demanded by good management can only be maintained by such wages as will attract good men and induce them to work at their highest efficiency.”

For Taylor and his colleagues, the key to more efficient management and worker prosperity both lay in science. This was happening in the midst of the scientific revolution, at a time when Lord Kelvin’s statement that “science begins with measurement” was regarded as almost a holy truth. Properly applied, science could show the best and most efficient way of getting work done. And, once the ‘one best way’ (to borrow Frank Gilbreth’s term) had been discovered, it would be impossible for either side to argue or object in the face of scientific proof. Labour unrest would wither away. Companies would profit, and workers would see their wages and prosperity increase.

Taylor for today

It is not difficult to find examples of Scientific Management in the 21st Century. Among them, the car and computer manufacturing plants, the work environments we go to everyday, the hospitals we are treated in and even some of the restaurants we might eat in – almost all of them function more efficiently due to the application of Scientific Management. In fact, these methods of working seem so commonplace and so logical to a citizen of the modern world that it is almost impossible to accept that they were revolutionary only 100 years ago.

Although Scientific Management does play an important role today, it is necessary to note that this method of management contains weaknesses that limit its influence in current work environments, and consequently not all of its tenants are applicable to modern organisations. Scientific Management is perhaps best seen as an evolutionary stage in management ever developing history.

However, it can be reasoned that scientific management is still a relevant concept for understanding contemporary work organisations. Scientific management has proved it has a place in a post-industrial economy and within work organisations, combined with other approaches. This is because scientific management allows a company to control its workforce through a series of measures that guarantees them the desired levels of productivity and efficiency.

In spite of this guarantee, the model, as Taylor prescribed it, also manages to alienate the workforce and cause dissatisfaction due to the authoritarian structure of the role of management. The human relations model adds a new dimension to scientific management as it allows management to work on the same principles as Taylor approved, such as time and motion studies, while also serving to fulfil employees’ social needs at the same time.

Relevance to us

The Sri Lankan workplace is evolving from colonial remnants towards a globally-connected one. Best practices are being embraced whilst ‘next’ practices are being initiated. The key strengths of scientific management can be effectively used to improve productivity. However, the key shortcomings of it have to be consciously supplemented by other methods. Motivating employees with better recognition and treating them with dignity could be such fundamentals.

Take the apparel industry as an example. The role played by the work-study unit in evaluating a particular ‘job’ is a direct application of scientific management. Call centre operation is an example from the service sector. A wide variety of manufacturing and service entities across Sri Lanka have been benefiting from selected applications of scientific management. The challenge could be to maintain a creative, caring and committed workforce.

What is required today is to best use the scientific management tools such as job analysis to understand the emerging jobs whilst being open to employee suggestions and initiatives. Employee engagement leading to enterprise excellence should be the way forward. Hard aspects such as goal setting should be combined with soft aspects such as interpersonal relations. Sri Lankan managers should master the art and science of management for such an endeavour.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on [email protected] or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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