It is not difficult to find examples of Scientific Management in the 21st Century; 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 in the 21st century, 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 organizations. Scientific Management is perhaps best seen as an evolutionary stage in management ever developing history. This essay will attempt to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of Scientific Management in context of the 21st century through examination of its application in several modern organizations.
Scientific Management was developed in the first quarter of the 20th Century; its father is commonly accepted to be F.W. Taylor, although some variations of the theory have been developed by Gantt and Gilbreth. Taylor recognized labor productivity was largely inefficient due to a workforce that functioned by “rules of thumb,” and a mentality that equated increased productivity with a cutting down of the labor force. Against the backdrop of Bethlehem Steel plant, Taylor carried out studies to insure that factual scientific knowledge would replace the traditional “rules of thumb”. The backbone of this activity was his “Time And Motion Study”, as Dale explains, “Taylor employed a young man to analyze all the operations and the motions performed in each and to time the motions with a stopwatch. From knowing how long it took actually to perform each of the elements in each job, it would be possible…to determine a really “fair days work“ (Dale 1963, p. 155.).
Through this study, Taylor could see that work was more efficient when broken down into its constituent parts, and the management, planning, and decision-making functions have been developed elsewhere. Taylor viewed the majority of workers as ill educated and unfit to make important decisions, this is illustrated in the following quotation, “One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles […] the ox… Therefore the workman…is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work” (Taylor 1998, p. 28).
Taylor’s implementation of scientific fact did not stop there; he had also studied the equipment workmen used appropriating the correct scientific design for the task at hand, these insured workers neither over-worked nor under-worked themselves. Furthermore, workers were scientifically selected resulting in workers performing tasks they were biologically able to cope with, and tasks that equaled their skill. Taylor (and later Gant) drove this system by incentivying workers with money.
Taylor’s system insured the most efficient way would be used by all workers, therefore making the work process standard. Invariably managers found that maximal efficiency was achieved by a subdivision of labor. This subdivision entailed breaking the workers tasks into smaller and smaller parts; in short, “specifying not only what is to be done but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it” (Taylor 1998, p. 17). George Ritzer in his book “The McDonaldization of Society” notes a similar philosophy in a McDonalds staff manua, “It told operators… precise cooking times for all products and temperature settings for all equipment…It specified that French fries be cut at nine-thirty-seconds thick…Grill men…were instructed to put hamburgers down on the grill moving left to right, creating six rows of six patties each” (Ritzer 2000, p. 38).
In many ways McDonalds is the archetypical example of an organization employing Scientific Management in production. Within this restaurant chain, uniformity is complete; no matter what country you are in every branch of McDonalds is the same, as are the methods used to prepare food, clean floors, promote staff and lock up on closing. It is this ability to efficiently supply standard food and service throughout the world that has allowed McDonalds to become the biggest restaurant chain on the planet (Peters and Waterman 1982, p. 173-174).
A theory, whose roots are based on the scientific management model is Fordism. This theory refers to the application of Henry Ford’s faith in mass production (Marcouse, 1996). The theory combined the idea of the moving assembly line together with Taylor’s systems of division of labor and piece rate payment. With Fordism, jobs are automated or broken down into unskilled or semi-skilled tasks. The pace of the continuous flow assembly line dictates work. Although Ford pioneered production in the assembly of consumer goods, such as cars, his theory retained the faults of Taylor’s. Autocratic management ensures a high division of labor in order to effectively run mass production; this leads to little workplace democracy and alienation. Equally, with emphasis on the continuous flow of the assembly line, machinery is given more importance than workers. Nonetheless, a retained benefit of Taylor’s work is the piece rate payment system. Workers are driven by financial motivation; being given a consolation of high wages while employers maintain control over the workforce.
The antithesis of scientific management is the human relations movement established by Elton Mayo. The model is based on the research undertaken by Mayo at the Hawthorne electrical components factory between 1927 and 1932. Mayo followed Taylor’s methods and was attempting to measure the impact on productivity of improving the lighting conditions within the factory. He followed Taylor’s scientific principles by testing the changes against a control, a section of the factory with unchanged lighting (Kelly 1982).
The benefits of scientific management lie within its ability to coordinate a mutual relationship between employers and workers. The theory provides a company with the focus to organize its structure in order to meet the objectives of both the employer and employee. At the time of its inception, Taylor found that the firms who introduced scientific management as he prescribed it became the world’s most meticulously organized corporations (Nelson, 1980). Scientific management also provides a company with the means to achieve economies of scale. This phenomenon occurs because the theory stresses efficiency and the need to eliminate waste. Managers are given the duty to identify ways in which costs can be accounted for precisely, which leads to a division of labor and a specialization amongst staff, thus allowing each employee to become highly effective at carrying out their limited task. Consequently, firms will have in place efficient production methods and techniques. Another benefit of scientific management for a company adopting it is that it will obtain full control of its workforce. Management can dictate the desired minimum output to be produced and, with a piece rate payment system in place, can be guaranteed workers will produce the required amount.
Scientific Management, however, is an incomplete system. What is seen in both the Bethlehem Steel plant under Taylor’s management in 1911, and in every McDonalds restaurant in the World now is a “deskilling” of labor. As jobs are broken down into their constituent elements, and workers tasks are made easier, humans become little more than “machines” in the chain. Their cognitive input is not required and their motions do little to develop themselves; it is here that we touch upon the first problem Scientific Management faces in the 21st Century.
In today’s society the average intelligence of employees has sharply risen; people have been made aware of their value as human beings and any process by which this status is challenged is considered self-depreciating. People are no longer content to receive only fiscal reward for their tasks. Under Taylor’s Scientific Management system workers were viewed as working solely for economic reward. In current organizations, on the other hand, it has been recognized that productivity and success is not just obtained by controlling all factors in the work place, but by contributing to the social well-being and development of the individual employee.
The negative aspects of scientific management are apparent when evaluating the treatment of employees and with the problems that arise from the piece rate payment system. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Taylor’s methods for managing the workers were not completely adhered to. Thousands of plants introduced elements of scientific management, but few firms created formal planning departments or issued instruction cards to machine workers in fear of alienating the workforce (Nelson, 1980). The principals of scientific management are unquestionably authoritarian in that they assume decision-making is best kept at the top of the organization because there exists a lack of trust in the competence of the employees. Taylor believed productivity and efficiency would both rise if there were a division between workers and experts, and contended that almost every act of the workman should be preceded by one or more preparatory acts of the management. He also reasoned that each person must be taught daily by those who are over them (1998). This style of management can be the catalyst for causing anti-motivation and dissatisfaction amongst employees. If workers feel as though they are being treated without due respect, many may become disenchanted with the company and refuse to work to their maximum potential. Similarly, the piece rate payment system may cause the employer to encounter the problem of encouraging staff to concentrate on quantity at the expense of quality.
Higher levels of access to technology and information as well as increased competition present another difficulty to theory of Scientific Management being applied to organizations in the 21st Century. Modern organizations process huge amounts of input, and employees no longer work in isolated units cut off from the organization at large, but are quite literally connected to it. Satellite link-ups and the Internet provide organizations with thousands of bytes of information everyday, enabling companies to work on a global scale and within never shortening time frames. Delivery times, information gathering, data processing and manufacturing techniques are constantly becoming more technologically advanced and efficient.
Alongside this rapid technological growth organizations are finding it increasingly important to react quickly to developments that may affect their welfare. Managers recognize they are unable to control all aspects of employee’s functions, as the sheer layers of information factored into everyday decisions are so high that it is imperative employees use their own initiative. High competition between organizations also means that companies must react fast to maintain market positions. All of these forces modern companies to maintain high levels of flexibility.
In the era during which Scientific Management was developed each worker had a specific task that he or she had to perform with little or no real explanation of why, or what part it plays in the organization as a whole. In this day and age it is virtually impossible to find an employee in the developed world who is not aware of what his or her organization stands for, what their business strategy is, how they are faring, and what their job means to the company as a whole. Organizations actively encourage employees to know about their company and to work across departments, insuring that communication at all levels is mixed and (what is becoming even more popular today) informal. This phenomenon means that, for example, in companies such as EXXON scientists, marketers and manufacturers are all constantly aware of one another’s activities (Peters & Waterman 1982, p. 218).
Another weakness in Scientific Management theory is that it can lead to workers becoming too highly specialized therefore hindering their adaptability to new situations, in the 21st Century employers not only want workers to be efficient they must also exhibit flexibility.
However, it can be reasoned that scientific management is still a relevant concept for understanding contemporary work organizations. Scientific management has proved it has a place in a post-industrial economy and within work organizations, albeit in a hybrid form with the human relations model. 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 fulfill employees’ social needs at the same time.
In conclusion, it can be seen that Scientific Management is still very much a part of any organization in the 21st Century. Its strengths in creating a divide between management functions and work functions have been employed widely at all levels and in all industries. In addition its strengths in making organizations efficient through replacement of “rules of thumb” with scientific fact has both insured its widespread application and ironically bred the conditions that make it less applicable to modern organizations. Now that all modern organizations work on a factual basis and all of them have managerial and employee structures competition is controlled by other factors outside the realms of Scientific Management. Modern organizations rank humanistic factors such as employee initiative, loyalty and adaptability alongside efficiency. For this reason, Taylor’s claim that workers are solely concerned with monetary reward and that every facet of work needs to be controlled from above seems outmoded, untrue, and impractical.
It is perhaps then better to accept that as a complete theory Scientific Management is not visible in modern organizations, however, elements of it are so relevant that they have become deeply ingrained in all modern organizations and are the very reasons why management has taken on new dimension in the 21st Century.