He is best known for his work in applying the scientific method to management. Taylor’s Principles were long respected in organisational planning and training but ‘Taylorism’ became a pejorative term, as we moved out of mass manufacturing and production into services. Yet his fundamental idea, that efficiencies should be sought in organisations, far from being abandoned, has remained the mainstay of management theory and practice for over a century. The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) was voted the most influential management book of the 20th century by the Academy of Management.
Taylor's four principles of scientific management are worth repeating:
1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on the scientific study of tasks
2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves
3. Provide detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker's discrete task
4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks
This can be reduced to the scientific and analytic approach to productivity through the focus on tasks or process, then formal training, with a focus on performance. Management is the science of planning for performance. When stated that way, we can see why Drucker, a huge admirer of Taylor, saw him not only as the father of modern management but also the person who shaped the great wealth creating industries that lifted millions out of poverty. This is far from the derogatory descriptions of many who see him as the architect of exploitative capitalism.
What characterises Taylor’s Principles is his focus on measurement, standardisation, management and he division of labour. The modern obsession with management, as opposed to general employees, even the obsessions with yet another class of management, leaders, all stems from Taylor. This fundamental distinction between management (who think and plan) and workers (who do and make things) was, of course more pronounced in the great era of manufacturing. But who can deny that, even in the modern era, more dominated by services, it has been carried over in all aspects of organisational structure, planning and training.
His principles put training at the centre of his scientific process, with the selection, development and training of staff to be based on scientific principles. His legacy was therefore to have training as a formal function within organisations, essential to business growth. Formal, direct training was the key to improving productivity.
This focus on training, not in a general sense, but in precise competences has also has a lasting effect. Whatever the business gaol or process, he recommends a scientific approach to the training of those performances, not as pure theory but as doing. Practice was essential and the transfer of learning to actual competence was essential. In many ways we have backtracked on this with the separation of training off into a different realm, not the workplace but the classroom and now online. We may have drifted back off Taylor’s base principle about training being about actual proven competences that transfer into practice in the workplace. In some ways we have forgotten these scientific principles, as training became, in places, more faddish, with less reliance on scientific research on how we learn and evidence-based practice. There is a contemporary movement to debunk these fads and myths that have crept into learning and training, which is Taylorist in approach.
Taylor’s world was one where most jobs were manual, so his focus on physical process was understandable. We now have the inverse, where manual work is now less than a tenth of all jobs, so his principles have to be adapted towards knowledge work. This means less focus on manual skills and more on cognitive skills.
As Taylor wanted to find ‘scientific’ solutions to production and performance problems, he recommended a single solution, with a binary split, where managers manage and plan, then workers do and make. This single scientific solution was replaced by less hierarchical approaches that distributed responsibility more widely in organisations, so that more personal responsibility is taken by all. Also, managers are no longer separated off to do pure planning. They take a more active role in the personal development and supervision of those they manage. Teamwork and collaboration, defined and researched by Belbin, Salas and Stodd have also led to a more democratised structures. Leadership has also been layered on to the management category.
In many organisations extreme and narrow specialisation is seen as inflexible. Indeed, it is seen as demotivating. A more humanistic approach to management where motivation, support, appraisal and personal development is seen as leading to higher productivity. Yet, Taylor was not blind to these issues. Two of his four principles were about training people.
There have also been changes in the way business processes are perceived, with more focus on continuous improvement. Quality management, control and now sophisticated data-driven approaches address the sheer complexity of procurement, supply chain management, production and distribution.
Although modern commentators are often critical of Taylor, they effectively parrot his approach. Management consultants unwittingly apply his original schema, that separated out managers from workers and now, leaders.
His methods resulted in both rejection by some owners and workers but also in significantly higher wages in others that adopted his methods, when wages were linked to productivity, so the charge that he was merely a stooge of the owners is not entirely true. However, there is little doubt that he had a rather negative view of the working class. Overall, however, Drucker is right in saying the result of his management techniques lifted many out of poverty. The downside is that this focus on paying managers and leaders well, has also led to massive levels of inequality, as the modern economists like Picketty and data shows.
What is striking, however, to see what little has changed. His basic distinction between management and workers has survived. Specialism still exists and the focus on business process that leads to increased performance and productivity, remains intact.
Taylor, F.W., (1911). The principles of scientiﬁc management. New York, 202.
Drucker, Peter (1974). Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. New York: Harper & Row.
Picketty, T., 2014. Capital in the 21st Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer.