An Analysis of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management

Frederick W. Taylor was the founder of the Scientific Management movement in the early 1900s. As a mechanical engineer, he developed an interest to improve efficiency in the steel industry, which he was most familiar with at the time. Drucker (1974) credited Taylor as “…the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study”. Drucker also added that even though Taylor only created the foundations of management science, “[n]ot much has been added to them since—even though he has been dead all of sixty years”. Taylor’s own publication on Scientific Management clearly illustrates Taylor’s enthusiasm for efficiency and the science of work, as well as his personal character as a philosopher and philanthropist. Taylor (1911) states his altruistic motives as he begins his book in the very first sentence stressing that the main goal of management ought to be the maximization of the employer’s as well as each employee’s welfare.

The most important requirement for prosperity, whether for the employer, worker, or the entire economy, is efficiency (Taylor, 1911, p. 11). By analyzing his own workforce for decades, Taylor states two main reasons why efficiency suffered. First, the workers lacked formal education and a standardized, systematic skillset. Second, and most importantly, Taylor was absolutely certain that most workmen believed that the employer-employee relationship is necessarily antagonistic (p. 10). He believed the workers perceived it as against their interest to give their employer full initiative. In Taylor’s view, workers team up against their employer and work at a minimum productivity level, just high enough to not get fired. This hostile and counterproductive worldview of the workers was termed “soldiering” and Taylor believed that it was the chief cause of unemployment in England at the time, since the workers sincerely believed that it was against their own best interest to work as hard as they can.

To combat the two main hurdles in the way of achieving higher levels of efficiency, Taylor (1911) believes workmen need extra incentives to give full initiative. The “special incentives” can be offered to the workers in a multitude of ways simultaneously: For example, by paying the workers a generous piece price, by allowing them to work shorter hours, by improving their working conditions, by showing personal consideration, and by maintaining a friendly contact. Taylor asserted that a kind interest in the worker’s welfare can go a long way in maintaining a high-efficiency and satisfied workforce.

The Scientific Method Applied to Management

The main achievement of Taylor’s management theory is, however, the application of the scientific method to management. As Drucker (1974) noted, Taylor was the first to observe and analyze work tasks in a methodical and scientific way. Taylor discovered the necessity for the application of science to the study of work during his career in the steel industry where he progressed through all functions and levels in the factories. He mentions that there were over 30 different trades in a typical steel mill and that the craftsmen’s skills developed in an evolutionary manner, handed down from generation to generation. Since there was no uniformity of skills, no systematic codification or analysis of work processes, it was common that each worker had only partial knowledge and was missing crucial skills to advance his efficiency level. In addition, the beginning of the 1900s was fundamentally different time than today—the educational gap between working class and higher social classes was tremendously greater than today. Furthermore, the lack of knowledge was interpreted as a lack of intelligence and those fortunate to be educated ridiculed the less educated harshly. It was, hence, not uncommon or surprising to find harsh statements made by Taylor throughout his book, such as these: “…the worker is so stupid that word ‘percentage’ has no meaning to him” (Taylor, 1911, p. 59). Taylor did, however, realize that for Scientific Management to become a success he had to also manage the educational problems at hand in addition to the scientific optimization of work processes.

Taylor (1911) stipulates that four main principles need to be followed in order to achieve worker initiative, uniformity, and ultimately, higher efficiency. First, each work performed needs to be broken down to a series of tasks. For each task, a science need to be developed by taking measures, standardizing, systematizing, and creating routines. Rule-of-thumb and guesswork must be eliminated. Second, for each task, the appropriate selection criteria for workmen need to be found. Then, carefully select, train, and teach each workman to implement the task in a standard way. Third, it is the management’s as well as the worker’s responsibility to ensure the work is performed according to the system developed. This equal distribution of responsibility between worker and manager is to ensure that each worker receives the attention, training, and assistance necessary to perform well. Forth, equal the equal division of work and responsibility between workers and management also implies that management should take over the work for which it is better suited than the workmen (p. 36).

These four principles presented a great deal of change compared to the common, ordinary management styles of the early 1900s and achieved numerous efficiency improvements. Tasks where standardized into tasks and this in turn enabled workers and management to prepare for each task and plan for the resources necessary for completion. The segmentation of work into routine task sequences also opened the door for systematic experimentation and task optimization by trial-and-error and successive iterations, which Taylor conducted with great interest. Task-based work also allows management to allocate resources as necessary and rotate workers to ensure a constant and predictable workflow. Taylor set up a planning department to plan each individual’s work ahead of time and thereby minimized idle time and maximized resource allocation. The systematic optimization of each task by scientific methods also reduced variations in production, which in turn reduced errors and waste. Since most parts in a factory were still handmade by that time, this realization to minimize variance was fundamental to achieving new levels of efficiency.

Higher Gains for All Stakeholders

Considerably higher pay rates, the joint responsibility, and the enhanced intimate cooperation between management and workers made workers feel empowered and changed the worker’s perception of being abused or victims of capitalistic exploitation; thus, they worked harder and took on more responsibility. Taylor’s combination of his four principles thus achieved significantly higher plant productivity. He succeeded in getting rid of the perception that management is exploiting the workers, by paying them a higher pay rate and giving them additional incentives to work harder, and by systematizing work and manufacturing methods. The systematization of work coupled with the increased level of management assistance and training ensured that workers became more productive and aligned the interests of management and workers by eliminating antagonism. As a result, Taylor’s company was able to achieve higher throughputs, more profits, and higher quality products. Under Taylor’s old plan his workforce included between 400 and 600 laborers and the cost per ton of iron was $0.072. These key indicators were reduced drastically to 140 and $0.033, respectively, while the earnings per man per day increased from $1.15 to $1.88, which were about 60% above market rate (Taylor, 1911, p. 71).

Taylor’s success was in part due to the four principles of scientific management but also due to Taylor’s apparent obsession with efficiency and a drive to understand every single miniscule aspect that could improve the workflow in his factory. For example, in a mission to find the “universal law” describing how many “foot-pounds” of energy a worker can exert before getting tired, he experimented several times but to no avail. His quest for efficiency was highlighted by his deep-rooted belief that there must be a precise and definite law to clearly quantify a full day’s of work. That law, or at least an approximation of it, was discovered by Carl Barth, a mathematician hired by Taylor. He found that carrying 92 pounds of weight, the worker can only hold the weight for 43% of the time; the other 57% are required for resting. In addition, if the weight is decreased, the holding time can be increased and hence the resting time shortened; hence, it was concluded that proper resting times are crucial to achieving top levels of efficiency by preventing the workers of getting tired too quickly (Taylor, 1911, p. 59). Taylor gives an example to how far task analysis efforts should go by discussing the difference a shovel load can have on the worker and compares the load versus maximum work period when a shovel is loaded at five, 10, 20, or more pounds at a time (p. 65).

The Need for Recordkeeping

Taylor’s notion that “every single act or every workman can be reduced to a science” (Taylor, 1911, p. 64) is also reflected in the extraordinary detailed recordkeeping efforts conducted at his factory. The detailed project planning efforts managed by his planning department created schedules and task descriptions for each single worker in advance. Taylor mentions how a former employee returned to Taylor explaining to him how unproductive the competitors were at the time, and consequently why that worker earned much less at the competitor plant. The man reported that workers at the competitor factory worked in unsupervised gangs and hence the productivity dropped to a minimum. Taylor concluded that because the competitor’s recordkeeping was inadequate and the management did not want to do the extra work of planning ahead for each individual worker and each of his tasks separately, they utilized only a fraction of their resources efficiently. Moreover, their lack of records made it impossible for them to realize that further gains were achievable by assigning each worker to a separate car and closely monitoring the work progress (p. 77).

Quality Management Techniques

Upon closer analysis it can be concluded that Taylor was indeed laying the foundation for quality management through his focus on efficiency, continuous improvement, and wealth distribution to all organizational stakeholders. First, he emphasized that even seemingly simple and established skills such as bricklaying can be optimized further, even for an experienced bricklayer by making his motions faster, shorter, and less tiring (p. 80). Then, Taylor acknowledges the necessity for personal accountability, which remains one of the crucial elements in quality management today, especially when production quantity is increased. He suggested to “make it impossible to slight their work without being found out” (p. 90) and recommended factory managers to set up anonymous inspections, so inspectors are not aware whose work they are inspecting. In order to keep the inspectors focused, a foreman would inject several defective items to the batch and later record the inspector’s accuracy (p. 91). Taylor thereby reduced variation using a combination of strategies which remain intact even in today’s statistical quality techniques (Bothe, 2003).

Discovering the Need for Rest Periods

Taylor’s observed that by shortening the workday of a group of women working in his factory, their output actually increased and quality improved substantially (Taylor, 1911, p. 92). At first he offered them shorter workday hours at equal pay and later, through targeted experiments and reassurances that their pay will remain the same, arranged that the women take a break after each 90 minutes of work. The arrangement of 12 minutes of rest per hour worked best by resulting in higher levels of concentration. In order to encourage higher accuracy at higher production levels, Taylor went on to combine pay rates depending on both quantity and quality of the women’s work and thereby drastically minimized the cost per piece (p. 93). The gain for the woman was equally strong: their workday was reduced from 10.5 to 8.5 hours, their income skyrocketed to 80 to 100% above their previous jobs, and two consecutive days of rest were paid each month (p. 95). It has been argued that Henry Ford’s decision to introduce the 40-hour workweek in 1926 was inspired by similar observations (Nyl, 1995).

Scientific Management and Current Management Principles Compared

It can be argued that Taylor’s studies and publications laid the groundwork of future quality management doctrines theorized by Juran, Deming, and others. Taylor’s philosophy, however, is even more far-reaching than his four principles, although there is considerable overlap. Taylor stressed that management should rely on science, not rule-of-thumb or guesswork, that harmony should be sought instead of discord, that cooperation needs to be fostered and individualism negated, and that instead of restricted output, the maximum output should be endeavored (Taylor, 1911, p. 140). In addition, however, Taylor’s philosophy goes beyond even some of today’s management doctrines. Taylor emphasized that each person should be developed to the greatest efficiency and prosperity possible. Given his deep understanding of human motivation, was Taylor a pioneer in envisioning the self-actualization of his workforce?

Taylor’s philanthropic nature is once again underlined in his justification of higher efficiency. Taylor states that greater levels of efficiency lead to greater wealth for the entire country, since the public will ultimately benefit the most from the increase in productivity (Taylor, 1911, p. 141). Taylor supports his profound observation about competitive market forces with examples of how the industrial revolution benefitted humanity worldwide. His rationale of how higher efficiency leads to increased wealth to all stakeholders, including the public, resembles at an abstract level Michael Porter’s framework of the “five forces”.

Taylor was an analyst and optimizer. He analyzed each task and then optimized the steps to increase efficiency and workflow. Taylor’s increased planning, standardization, and productivity efforts are now basis of quality management theories and guidelines, such as Six Sigma (Drake, Sutterfield, & Ngassam, 2008). In contrast to Taylor and subsequent traditional methods, modern quality systems include the understanding of customer demand in their definition of quality. Taylor was a pioneer to reinforce continuous improvement and standardization, which remain essential strategies of today’s quality ideologies, and his observation and measuring procedures have later on been replaced by statistical methods to control and quantify quality. Current research also supports Taylor’s view that employee motivation and continuous improvement are mutually reinforcing phenomena (Cheser, 1998).

Jabnoun (2000) and Boje and Winsor (1993) argued that Total Quality Management (TQM) can be interpreted as a form of Taylorism; however, this would only apply for so-called mechanistic management structures in the organization, which are typically highly formal, centralized, and rather complex. While such management structures have worked in the early 1900s in industrial production environments, future industries needed a more flexible management structure. Organic organizations emerged in the mid-1900s and typically involve less formalism and require more communication across departments. Organic structures today are more suited to solve complex problems that require flexible restructuring of the workforce combined with intensive interaction between employees, management, customers, and partner organizations.

Taylor’s Principles and Their Relevance in Today’s Organizations


Taylor noted that management needs to study employee motivation in more depth (Taylor, 1911, p. 119). One crucial observation Taylor made is that it is not possible to get employees to increase their throughput unless their income is raised considerably and permanently (p. 121). Today’s organization may offer a variety of perks to lure and retain employees; however, income is still the main employee motivator according to recent research (Rynes, Gerhart, & Minette, 2004).

Taylor also noticed, however, that other factors contributed to employee motivation. He segmented each task to fit into a day so that employees can measure their own progress on their own and feel a sense of accomplishment (p. 120) and encouraged workers to continuously improve by using their own originality to extend the organization’s knowledge. The cooperation between management and workers was further reinforced by encouraging workers to submit suggestions and by giving employees full credit and paying them a cash premium for improvements for valuable improvements (p. 128). Taylor’s management style, hence, exploited the human need for personal development and growth by inspiring and motivating employees (Cheser, 1998). Organizations utilizing the kaizen philosophy today may be using more advanced statistical techniques; yet, the kaizen system closely aligns to the scientific management notion.

Taylor’s principles and philosophy was expanded in today’s current quality management ideologies, such as Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma, with the addition of teamwork across the organization, customer and other stakeholder focus, and advanced statistical techniques. The key generalizations of Taylor’s principles that remain in the heart of all current quality systems are the stakeholder focus and meeting customer demands (Drake, Sutterfield, & Ngassam, 2008).

Taylor’s realization of the need for inspections and his methods of data analysis and assessment laid the groundwork for and closely resemble today’s statistical thinking in quality centered organizations (Bothe, 2003). In particular, Taylor concentrated on eliminating waste; however, Taylor made references throughout his book in his he expressed the need to reduce variation through the standardization of tasks and tools. What Bothe (2003) calls statistical thinking is mirrored in Taylor’s quality prescription: measure, reduce variation, and refine.

Taylor’s experiments regarding employee efficiency and work hours were also a fundamental contribution to the body of management knowledge (Nyl, 1995). After Taylor proved through his experiments that more work could be done with less worker fatigue and shorter working hours, other industry leaders began cutting the workweek, such as Henry Ford, who introduced the 40-hour workweek in 1926 (1995). While the discussion about work hours may continue until today, Taylor’s experiments have created the impetus necessary to bring this important efficiency variable to the attention of management literature.

More recently, Ehrlich (2006) applied scientific management to today’s service-centered organizations. Lean servicing is Ehrlich’s adaptation of scientific management principles to modern world service businesses. Ehrlich argues that eliminating waste during customer service calls may be achieved by getting rid of rework loops and by servicing one customer at a time from start to finish. Ehrlich thus successfully transcribed Taylor’s principles from manufacturing to service and from a rather mechanistic and routinized environment to a modern, highly complex and customer interactive setting. His research, hence, contradicts some of Taylor’s major critics.

Criticisms of Taylor’s Principles

Drake, Sutterfield, and Ngassam (2008) describe how Taylor’s ideas seem limited from today’s perspective due several reasons. First, the authors identified that in Taylor’s factories employees were told exactly how to work and teamwork and cross-functional tasks rarely exited. Second, Taylor utilized post-production inspection rather than in-process inspection. Modern quality systems, such as Six Sigma, also focus on reducing waste and errors in each sub-process and partial production step (2008). Moreover, Taylor’s ideas do not take into account that workers need to be aware of customer requirements. In today’s world, close employee-customer interaction is much more common and is likely to involve employees outside customer service departments.

Another key criticism is that mundane repetition of tasks may also be unappealing to workers and workers may start to feel treated like machines. This perspective, however, depends more on how the work environment is set up rather than on Taylor’s principles. Worker may be rotated and continuously trained, so that their work is kept interesting and challenging. In addition, Ehrlich (2006) has shown how the standardization of work may be adapted to today’s knowledge worker scenario in a service industry setting; hence, Ehrlich counteracted the criticism that repetitive tasks are difficult to standardize and control. Knowledge workers and even creative artists should be able to apply Taylor’s quality principles even when in cases where there appears to be no uniformity. The strategy for knowledge worker settings could be to make task guidelines more abstract and less detailed and leave more flexibility to the worker.

Some authors have criticized Taylor’s ideology and perspective on humans as being both too positive and too negative (Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2008). Taylor felt that workers are incompetent, mentally inclined, resistant to cooperate with employers, and lazy. On the other hand, Taylor described managers as trustworthy and cooperative individuals and failed to seek for “systematic soldiering” in his managers (2008).

After intensive analysis of historical documents, Wrege and Perroni (1974) found that Taylor fabricated the story about “Schmidt” and discovered that the same story was altered at least three times in consecutive publications. Taylor claimed that Schmidt was systematically selected based on his abilities, when in fact he was not. In addition, Taylor claimed to be the advocate of proper rest periods, yet records show that he interpreted return walk periods as rest periods when workers return empty-handed after loading iron on a car. Wrege and Perroni (1974) concluded that Taylor’s rest period stories were a “hoax” based on the Taylor’s experiment records.

How have Organizations in the Modern Marketplace Adapted the Best Parts of the Strategy While Improving on the Average Components?

Rynes, Gerhart, & Minette (2004) discovered a discrepancy between what employees report motivates them and what truly motivates them. Taylor’s assumption that pay is the key employee motivator was found to be valid even today. While organizations augmented their profit sharing techniques by offering other employee incentives, such as company cars, longer vacations, and sick leave, the main motivator has remained the same.

Gronroos (1994) describes the transition from Taylorism to modern service management perspectives and TQM and suggested four general shifts in management. First, management is now to focus on the entire organization and customer experience rather than just the product. Second, long-term relationships are now more important than short-term transactions. Third, rather than limited quality to the product, quality is now extended to the entire customer experience in the long-term. Fourth, management needs to create quality processes throughout the organizations and make those the key processes instead of production.

Peaucelle (2000) suggested that Taylor’s principles where limited to maximizing profit by reducing costs and increasing unit throughputs; however, in today’s world management needs to pursue multiple concurrent objectives in addition to these old objectives. Shorter delivery times, better quality, diverse product offerings, and flexible manufacturing are new challenges that managers need to master without increasing long-term cost. Peaucelle, thus, suggests that the emergence of “Post-Taylorism” denotes the addition of new challenges by employing additional activities; yet, the principle of satisfying seemingly mutually exclusive objectives without increasing costs remains intact. When analyzed at an abstract level, Taylor’s principles essentially aim towards satisfying several management objectives that appear to be mutually exclusive.

The Applicability of Scientific Management Principles in the Future

The name “scientific management” may have vanished from modern management literature; yet, Taylor’s principles are still alive in today’s organizations (Freeman, 1996). While the contemporary worker’s environment has drastically changed, Taylor’s notions appear to be immortal, withstanding the change brought by new technologies and globalization. As suggested by Peaucelle (2000), today’s challenges are multidimensional and managers need to continuously improve and find new ways to satisfy all stakeholders; however, new, extended versions of Taylorism, such as Statistical Process Control (SPC), may be deployed in the future to various work settings, even those that cannot be imagined at this point in time. This is mostly because Taylor’s principles are more of a work philosophy rather than a narrowly defined work specification. The elimination of waste, minimization of resource usage, and the continuous improvement of the organization and workforce will always remain key objectives to all businesses in the world, regardless of location.

Brödner (2007) philosophized that we are in an age of transformation that spans from Taylorism to the competence-based development of organizations. The continuous improvement and work optimization theory of Taylor is hence stretched once more to a very dynamic scenario where the organization must continuously redefine itself and create new competences in order to survive. In the early 1900s it sufficed to produce more efficiently in order to make a profit and compete at the market place. Today’s hyper-competitive, globalized marketplace calls for internal flexibility in which the organization itself needs to be constantly scrutinized—global success hence depends on being able to adapt and learn from the past. Are we approaching an era where only “intelligent” organizations will succeed?




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