Scientific Management

By Patricia Ryaby Backer 6/11/1998

Frederick Taylor is the person who is most often associated with the system labeled scientific management, and indeed, he was the originator of this set of concepts. However, there were others in the field of scientific management who had as much if not greater effect on the workplace. According to Sullivan (1987), Taylor's work not only represented the beginning of the managerial era in industrial production but also signaled the end of the craft era in the United States.

According to Hirschhorn (1984), Taylor's work highlights the relationship between rationalization in general and labor-control methods in particular. In Taylor's (1911) book, The Principles of Scientific Management, he discussed what he called a struggle for control of production between management and labor. To control production, he developed methods for the measure and design of machining methods as part of a general plan for increasing the planning functions of management. Taylor's fundamental concept and guiding principle was to design a production system that would involve both men and machines and that would be as efficient as a well-designed, well-oiled machine (Hughes, 1989). Time studies were used to allow management to take control of the operations, thereby controlling production methods, and, by default, production. This system required that management should take a more active role in the factory and, through engineers and salaried foremen, take greater control over operations. Skilled craftsmen and foremen had to give up their power (Hirschhorn, 1984).

Taylor developed his principles of management while a machinist and foreman at the Midvale Steel Company of Philadelphia. Taylor was bothered by, what was called as the time, "worker soldiering." (Worker soldiering refers to the practice of purposely stalling or slowing down work by the workers.) Taylor believed that the objective of workers when they stalled was to keep "their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done" (cited in Hughes, 1989, p. 190).

Taylor began his assault on "worker soldiering" by doing time studies of workers while they were undertaking their production activity. Taylor timed the workers' actions with a stopwatch. However, he did not time the entire job; instead, he broke down complex sequences of motions into what he labeled the elementary ones. He then timed the elementary actions as were performed by the workers he considered to be efficient in their movements. Having timed and analyzed the movements, he combined these elementary motions into a new set of complex motions that he insisted should be used by all workers. These calculations determined the piecework rate with bonuses paid for better rates and penalties taken for slower work. As Carl Barth, a disciple of Taylor noted in his testimony to the U.S. Commission of Industrial Relations,

"My dream is that the time will come when every drill press will be speeded just so, and every planer, every lathe the world over will be harmonized just like musical pitches are the same all over the that we can standardize and say that for drilling a 1-inch hole the world over will be done with the same speed...That dream will come true, some time" (Barth, 1914, p. 889).

Taylor did not limit his method to the worker--he organized the redesign of the entire factory by removing control over operations from foremen and placing this control in a centralized planning department to be staffed with engineers. The planning department prepared detailed instructions about the machines and methods to be used and how long the job should take. Using sets of instruction cards (route slips) and reports, the planning department was able to produce a overall picture of the flow of parts in the plant--this activity was the beginning of formalized routing and scheduling in the factory.

Althought Taylor designed Scientific Management to resolve problems in the workplace, the effects of Scientific Management spread from the factory to everyday life. We will discuss the results of "Taylorism" in four different sections that are listed below.

Effects of Scientific Management

The immediate result of scientific management, according to Drucker (1967b) was a drastic cut in the cost of manufactured goods (1/10 to 1/20 of the previous manufactured cost). This allowed goods to be purchased by more people. Also, scientific management allowed the raising of wages (even while the cost of the product was dropping). This movement also caused a shift in the factories from unskilled laborer, usually paid at a subsistence wage, to machine operator, who was more highly paid.

A full version of Taylorism spread only slowly through the factory. As late as 1914 Robert Hoxie (cited in Hirschhorn, 1984) wrote that "no single shop was found which could be said to represent fully and faithfully the Taylor system as presented in the treatise on shop management." Taylor had lasting influence through his development of traditional manufacturing practices. In machine shops, for example, owners began to devise routing slips, inventory tracking methods, and an entire range of techniques for organizing production. These new techniques were inspired by the work of Taylor and the principles of scientific management.

Taylorís role in the history of industrial management is complex and still debated today. In industrial circles, he represented the transition from 19th century to 20th century manufacturing techniques. He was one of the first industrial managers who perceived "the interrelated character of the new manufacturing systems and the need for a disciplined, comprehension change if the manufacturer and the industrial sector were to attain the optimum results" (Nelson, 1980, p. 199). Few plants introduced his complete system but thousands of plants introduced elements of scientific management: time study methods; new machine tool practices; methods for managing tools, materials, machines, supervisors, and workers; and formal planning departments.

Scientific management became more widespread after World War I as professional managers moved into high management positions. The formation of bureaucratic organizations with middle management positions changed the role of the shop foreman and reduced his power. By the 1920s, big business executives were promoting the new factory management system and, by the late 1920s, the nationís most prominent labor leaders had become exponents of this "humanized" scientific management. Perhaps the most important legacy of Taylor and scientific management is the discipline that grew out of this field: industrial engineering. Industrial engineers today are still taught the methods of scientific management including time and motion studies, job-tasks analysis, wage-incentive determination, and detailed production planning. With respect to the field of operation research and management,

"Taylorís work had importance in ways directly germane to operations research. His contributions, great as they were intrinsically, were even more valuable in revealing the merit of creating elements of organization whose object was not the performance of operations, but their analysis: It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this first basic step: the formation of organizations for research on operations...his work led to better decisions than those which were possible, and in most cases, necessary before" (George, 1968, pp. 151-152).

Reaction to "Taylorism" Taylor's methods and his views of the worker met with resistance from labor. Taylor believed that the success of his methods depended on management controlling and replacing the craft knowledge held by workers with a systematized method of production. However, workers did not accept Taylor's methods readily. In fact, as Taylor himself wrote, his attempt to redesign the work process "immediately started a war...which as time went on grew more and more bitter" (cited in Lasch, 1987, p. 80).

Despite the fact that Taylor's complete system was never fully implemented, he still had the most effect on the relations between management and labor in manufacturing organizations. Taylorism changed the relations between management and labor by changing the position of labor in the firm. Unorganized and unskilled workers bore much of the brunt of the advance of scientific management in the factory (Haber, 1964). The new system demanded that workers produced at higher speeds and with increased subordination to management. Skilled labor was replaced by cheap, easily trained and replaceable workers who came predominately from the so-called new immigrants (Ramirez, 1978). This deskilled labor was then disposable to management.

"The state of the labor market therefore gave businessmen and efficiency experts the necessary maneuvering space to introduce new methods of work and production and new wage structures and to select the workers who were most readily willing to adapt to them or, to put it in the common business jargon of the time, to perform 'the weeding out of the less efficient workmen.' In addition, welfare experts and personnel managers could more freely put into operation programs designed to adjust their work force, stabilize their labor relations, and boost the productivity of their enterprises" (Ramirez, 1978, p. 133).

In addition to the response from workers to Taylorís methods, his goals and methods drew criticism from politicians, industrialists , and humanists. Dos Passos, a prominent American writer of this period, recognized that Taylorís methods led to the deskilling of work. Also, he questioned the value that Taylor placed on abundance and the need for it in American society. "more steel rails more bicycles more spools of thread more armorplate for battleships more bedpans more barbed wire more needles more lightningrods more ballbearings more dollarbills (Dos Passos, 1936, p. 24).

Other critics of Taylor differed with his view that the interests of workers were identical to those of managers. These critics held Taylor responsible for a subjugation of workers to a kind of industrial slavery.

"Taylorism" and Organized Labor. In manufacturing, the efficiency movement caused an increase in output per unit of labor, between 1907 and 1915, of 33 percent a year, compared to an annual average increase of 9.9 percent between 1900 and 1907 (Ramirez, 1978). In addition, this "process of rationalization" of the workplace had an anti-working class character. Through the scientific management methods, workers were treated as machines, devalued, and paid less money for their efforts. A consequence of this treatment of workers was the rise of the unions and increased strikes and unrest among workers. One of the most famous strikes was against U.S. Steel in 1909, when more than 3,500 unorganized, mass production workers revolted against the inhuman working conditions produced by that company's efficiency drive which included a new mass production line and a piece rate system that resulted in speed-ups and a reduction in take home pay for most workers.

Interestingly, later, the principles of scientific management were accepted by organized labor who considered Taylor's principles a means for protecting jobs and controlling members (Sullivan, 1987). Using these principles, increased specialization in production enabled the unions to emphasize job control and worker rights in the shop floor. "This mass production model of shop-floor control depends on two key assumptions: a job is a precisely defined series of tasks; and seniority is the criterion for the allocation of jobs" (Sullivan, 1987, p. 96). As industrial unions took root across the United States, wage and job security provisions were established through collective bargaining by using sharply defined job tasks.


Barth, C.G. (1914). Testimony of Carl G. Barth, Hearings of the U.S. Commisions on Industrial Relations, 64th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Doc. 26 (Ser. Vol. 6929), April 1914).

Dos Passos, J. (1936). U.S.A. Book 3: Big money. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company.

Francis, A. (1986). New technology at work. New York: Clarendon Press.

George, C.S., Jr. (1968). The history of management thought. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Giedion, S. (1948). Mechanization takes command: A contribution to anonymous history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haber, S. (1964). Efficiency and uplift. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hirschhorn, L. (1984). Beyond mechanization: Work and technology in a post-industrial age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hughes, T.P. (1989). American genesis. New York: Penguin Books.

Jacob, M. (1988). The cultural meaning of the scientific revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lasch, C. (1987). Technology and its critics. The degradation of the practical arts. In Goldberg & Strain Technological change and the transformation of America (pp. 79-90). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Marglin, S. (1974). What do bosses do? The origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production. Review of Radical Political Economics, 6, 2ff.

Mumford, L. (1986). The Lewis Mumford reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Nelson, D. (1980). Taylor and scientific management. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Ramirez, B. (1978). When workers fight: The politics of industrial relations in the Progressive Era, 1898-1916. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Rutherford, F.J., & Ahlgren, A. (1990). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford.

Sabel, C.F. (1982). Work and politics: The division of labor in industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sakaiya, T. (1991). The knowledge value revolution (G. Fields & W. Marsh, Trans.). New York: Kodansha International.

Sullivan, B.G. (1987). The challenge of economic transformation. In S.E. Goldberg & C.R. Strain (Eds.), Technological change and the transformation of America (pp. 91-103). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Taylor, F.W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper.