The Principles of Scientific Management

5Review by Alice Waagen

Book by Frederick Winslow Taylor

Every now and then, I enjoy mixing my two interests in history and business by rereading a book from the past. One great classic that is still an enlightening read today is The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor – known as the inventor of time and motion studies.

In 1911, Taylor proposed a new and radically different approach to management, called scientific management. His work was an attempt to counter the adversarial struggle between labor and management which was prevalent in his day. As he saw it, workers used various methods to “under-work,” or deliberately work slowly, in order to protect their jobs and those of their co-workers. Management, driven by the need to increase productivity, relied on a series of positive and negative incentives to boost output. Taylor saw this system as flawed, and worked out his revolutionary theories as a positive alternative.

One cornerstone of Taylor’s approach was to study each separate task in a work process and to measure and quantify the time and motions needed to perform it optimally. He was inspired by some of the research being conducted at that time to determine the ratio of manpower to horsepower. Taylor, working in the steel mills, eventually was able to quantify the maximum load for a hypothetical “first-class” worker, as well as the rest times required by such a worker for optimal efficiency. Through this method he was able to increase outputs in the steel mills by a staggering 60-70%, far more than any incentives were able to achieve.

It is a tribute to the soundness of Taylor’s scientific management process that it remains required reading in leadership courses nearly a century later. In fact, the details of his time and motion studies are very reminiscent of the early days of quality programs. Total Quality Management espoused that if you couldn’t measure it, you shouldn’t be doing it – very Taylor-esque!

And yet, much of what Taylor preached seems archaic today. For example, he boldly stated that scientific management is the responsibility of the manager because the worker is simply too “stupid” to figure it out himself. In his time, perhaps, this was a more understandable conclusion: most workers were illiterate and poorly educated manual laborers who had to base their work approaches on word-of-mouth instructions and by observing others. Their work practices varied tremendously depending on whatever processes were handed down by their foremen. Even given these realities, however, Taylor’s views were extreme: he believed laborers were no better than oxen.

Nevertheless, Taylor has important insights that are relevant today. In his model, success depends on close and intimate cooperation between a manager and his laborers. As he pointed out:

  • The manager’s job is to observe, analyze and codify the optimum steps needed for task completion.
  • Managers must teach, help and guide workers in effective methods.
  • And managers must plan the work in advance, ensuring that each worker is best matched to a particular job according to his or her capabilities.


This ultimate “cooperation between management and workers” results in attaining the basic goal of management: “maximum prosperity for the employer and the employee.”

Taylor also speaks to today’s management issues in that he includes studies on what motivates workers. He tested the incentive practices of his day by simply offering wage raises as a means to increase efficiency. During these experiments he discovered that increasing wages does not produce a permanent increase in output if the underlying processes are not also analyzed and improved. Nearly 100 years later, studies have confirmed that compensation increases, when not married with other incentives, fail to motivate employees beyond a limited timespan.

The bottom line: By recognizing the manager and laborer as partners in the business enterprise, Taylor established the foundation for participatory management — an approach that would not be fully developed for nearly 50 more years. His relevance for us may be less in his time and motion studies than in his revolutionary break from the adversarial, dictatorial management of his times, in favor of individualized performance coaching. (In one rather touching example, he noted that alcoholism would be reduced in the workforce because men couldn’t work at optimum performance if drunk!)

Although it is not his main message, Taylor’s sub-theme that every worker needs to be measured and matched to the best work for him or her is clearly still relevant — and important for leaders to apply in today’s organizations.