Understanding Taylor: Going Back to the Principles of Scientific Management


Frederick Taylor (1856 – 1915) was an American engineer who wrote one of the most influential and, as it turns out, misunderstood business books: “The Principles of Scientific Management.” I say misunderstood though perhaps a more precise description might be partially understood. Partially, because although most people are familiar with the idea “time and motion study,” of employing a “scientific” rather than ad hoc approach to discovering the best method for a particular task, and of standardizing all workers to that best practice standard, the vast majority of people have never actually read Taylor’s monograph and fully reflected on the entirety of his thesis which contains several ideas that are not usually mentioned when people offhandedly talk about Taylor’s ideas and toss around the phrase “what gets measured gets managed” (which he never wrote).

First, reading Taylor monograph is an exercise in time travel to an era of considerably different attitudes. For example, in describing workers he wrote:

Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word “percentage” has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.

I wasn’t around in 1900 and so perhaps his characterization and wording was not as inappropriate as it is today; but aside from a couple of eyebrow raising passages such as this one, Taylor writes dispassionately and persuasively for his case of not only a scientific approach to management but of a progressive one as well, an approach that is recognizable today as “the Toyota Way.”

For instance he emphasizes the importance and need to treat each worker as an individual who, rather than getting the boot for non-performance, should have access to competent and hands-on training:

When one ceases to deal with men in large gangs or groups, and proceeds to study each workman as an individual, if the workman fails to do his task, some competent teacher should be sent to show him exactly how his work can best be done, to guide, help, and encourage him, and, at the same time, to study his possibilities as a workman. So that, under the plan which individualizes each workman, instead of brutally discharging the man or lowering his wages for failing to make good at once, he is given the time and the help required to make him proficient at his present job, or he is shifted to another class of work for which he is either mentally or physically better suited.

The nature of the worker-management relationship in Taylor’s system was not adversarial or punitive, but based on respect and mutual benefit:

All of this requires the kindly cooperation of the management, and involves a much more elaborate organization and system than the old-fashioned herding of men in large gangs…this presents a very simple though effective illustration of what is meant by the words “prosperity for the employee, coupled with prosperity for the employer,” the two principal objects of management.

Elsewhere we read about the importance and role of constantly searching for new best practices and then standardizing on those new best practices:

…whenever a workman proposes an improvement, it should be the policy of the management to make a careful analysis of the new method, and if necessary conduct a series of experiments to determine accurately the relative merit of the new suggestion and of the old standard. And whenever the new method is found to be markedly superior to the old, it should be adopted as the standard for the whole establishment. The workman should be given the full credit for the improvement, and should be paid a cash premium as a reward for his ingenuity.

There is mention of a concept that today many call the “ABC” technique or Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence that encourages management to identify specific behaviors that they should positively reinforce with rewards (positive consequences) that are timely. Taylor wrote:

A reward, if it is to be effective in stimulating men to do their best work, must come soon after the work has been done.

Taylor also wrote about the use of frontline team leaders, a common feature today in progressive operations:

Under functional management, the old-fashioned single foreman is superseded by eight different men, each one of whom has his own special duties, and these men, acting as the agents for the planning department, are the expert teachers, who are at all times in the shop, helping, and directing the workmen. Being each one chosen for his knowledge and personal skill in his specialty, they are able not only to tell the workman what he should do, but in case of necessity they do the work themselves in the presence of the workman, so as to show him not only the best but also the quickest methods.

Towards the end of his paper Taylor issues some warnings. Clearly, a century of supposed progress in business management seems not to have made enough headway in understanding and acting on his admonition that these improvement requires careful application of change management:

Scientific management, in its essence, consists of a certain philosophy, which results, as before stated, in a combination of the four great underlying principles of management:

  • First. The development of a true science.
  • Second, The scientific selection of the workman.
  • Third. His scientific education and development.
  • Fourth. Intimate friendly cooperation between the management and the men.

When, however the elements of this mechanism, such as time study, functional foremanship etc., are used without being accompanied by the true philosophy of management, the results are in many cases disastrous. And, unfortunately, even when men who are thoroughly in sympathy with the principles of scientific management undertake to change too rapidly from the old type to the new, without heeding the warnings of those who have had years of experience in making this change, they frequently meet with serious troubles, and sometimes with strikes, followed by failure.

…the really great problem involved in a change from the management of “initiative and incentive” to scientific management consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all of those engaged in the management, as well of the workmen. And this change can be brought about only gradually and through the presentation of many object-lessons to the workman, which, together with the teaching which he receives, thoroughly convince him of the superiority of the new over the old way of doing the work. This change in the mental attitude of the workman imperatively demands time. It is impossible to hurry it beyond a certain speed.

In other words it takes 9 months to have a baby no matter how many people we put on the project. Just as today, however, Taylor encountered energetic and smart business people (perhaps proto-MBAs) who insisted on racing ahead:

Several men who lacked the extended experience which is required to change without danger of strikes, or without interference with the success of the business, from the management of “initiative and incentive” to scientific management, attempted rapidly to increase the output in quite an elaborate establishment, employing between three thousand and four thousand men. Those who undertook to make this change were men of unusual ability, and were at the same time enthusiasts and I think had the interests of the workmen truly at heart.

They were, however, warned by the writer, before starting, that they must go exceedingly slowly, and that the work of making the change in this establishment could not be done in less than from three to five years. This warning they entirely disregarded. They evidently believed that by using much of the mechanism of scientific management, in combination with the principles of the management of “initiative and incentive,” instead of with these principles of scientific management, that they could do, in a year or two, what had been proved in the past to require at least double this time.

Unfortunately the men who had charge of this work did not take the time and the trouble required to train functional foremen, or teachers, who were fitted gradually to lead and educate the workmen. They attempted, through the old-style foreman, armed with his new weapon (accurate time study), to drive the workmen, against their wishes, and without much increase in pay, to work much harder, instead of gradually teaching and leading them toward new methods, and convincing them through object-lessons that task management means for them somewhat harder work, but also far greater prosperity.

The result of all this disregard of fundamental principles was a series of strikes, followed by the down-fall of the men who attempted to make the change, and by a return to conditions throughout the establishment far worse than those which existed before the effort was made.

Taylor ends on a note that is as relevant now as it was in 1911 as a vision for Process Excellence:

It is no single element, but rather this whole combination, that constitutes scientific management, which may be summarized as:

  • Science, not rule of thumb.
  • Harmony, not discord.
  • Cooperation, not individualism.
  • Maximum output, in place of restricted output.
  • The development of each man to his greatest efficiency and prosperity.

Today’s business leaders, Black Belts and consultants would do well to read Taylor’s essay rather than buy another business book in an airport bookstore.