SIX The Coming Rediscovery of Scientific Management – Peter F. Drucker on Nonprofits and the Public Sector


The Coming Rediscovery of Scientific Management

EVERYBODY “KNOWS” THE FOLLOWING “FACTS” about Frederick Winslow Taylor: His aim was “efficiency,” which meant reducing costs and increasing profits. He believed that workers responded primarily to economic incentives. He invented the “speed-up” and the assembly line. He saw only the individual worker, and not the work group. He considered workers to be “machines” and to be used as machines. He wanted to put all power and control into the hands of management, while he had deep contempt for the workingman. And he was the father of “classical organization theory,” with its hierarchical pyramids, its concept of the span of control, its functions, and so on.

But even the most cursory reading of Taylor* immediately shows that every one of these “well-known facts” is pure myth.

Taylor’s central theme, which he repeated again and again, was the need to substitute industrial harmony for industrial warfare and mutual trust for fear in the industrial plant. This required, he maintained, four major changes:

1. It first required high wages. Indeed, Taylor demanded of every management starting to introduce “scientific management”—that is, the systematic study of work and tasks—that it commit itself at the outset, before beginning the study itself, to a wage increase of 30 to 100 percent. And in his first attempt to describe what he then called the “task system” in Shop Management, he stated almost at the outset: “This book is written mainly with the object of advocating high wages—as the foundation of the best management.”

He believed that productivity brought about by doing work right would make possible high wages and would, in effect, provide what we today would call “affluence.” And Taylor strongly believed that the worker should receive the full benefit of higher productivity obtained through “scientific management,” whether in the form of higher wages or of shorter hours.

Yet Taylor did not believe that economic incentives by themselves would motivate. He anticipated practically all the later research of the human relations school or of Frederick Herzberg in stating that higher wages by themselves do not provide motivation, but that dissatisfaction with wage incomes is a major deterrent and destroys motivation. (The word “motivation” was, of course, unknown to Taylor—it did not come into general usage until the twenties; Taylor speaks of “initiative.”)

2. The second major need, according to Taylor, was to eliminate physical strain and bodily damage caused by doing the work the wrong way. Again and again, he pointed out that “scientific management” lightened the heavy physical toil and maintained energy. Again and again, he pointed out how traditional work creates injuries, fatigue, strain, dulls the faculties, and wears out the body. In a passage in the introduction to Principles of Scientific Management, which sounds strangely contemporary, Taylor contrasts the then-popular concern with the wanton destruction of such physical resources as forests, coal, or oil with the disregard of the wastage and destruction of the human resource.

3. Thirdly, Taylor believed that “scientific management” would produce industrial harmony through providing the means for the fullest development of the human personality. In his Testimony he said:

It becomes the duty of those on the management side to deliberately study the character, the nature, and the performance of each workman, with a view to finding out his limitations, on the one hand, but even more important, his possibilities for development on the other hand; and then, as deliberately and as systematically as possible, to train and help and teach this workman, giving him, wherever it is possible, those opportunities for advancement which will finally enable him to do the highest and most interesting and most profitable class of work for which his natural abilities fit him and which are open to him in the particular company in which he is employed. This scientific selection of the workman and his development is not a single act; it goes on from year to year and is the subject of continual study on the part of the management.

Taylor not only preached this, he practiced it. One of his most interesting innovations, and one on which he insisted in every plant in which he introduced “scientific management,” was the appointment of people whose main duty it was to identify abilities in the work group and to help workers acquire the training and the skill for advancement to better, more highly skilled, more responsible, and, above all, bigger jobs. He insisted—most successfully in his work at Bethlehem Steel—that no one be fired as a result of “scientific management,” but that attrition and normal turnover be used to place the workman in another job in the plant. Again and again, he stressed the need to enrich jobs and work and to make them bigger, rather than confine them to one repeated operation. And he stressed the duty of management to find what a man is suited for—and then to make sure that he gets to do this kind of work. Taylor maintained that except for those few capable of work but unwilling to do it, there are only “first-rate men.” It is management’s job to make sure that they get the opportunity to excel.

4. Finally, “scientific management” to Taylor meant the elimination of the “boss.”

If there is anything that is characteristic of scientific management, it is the fact that the men who were formerly called bosses under the old type of management, under scientific management become the servants of the workmen. It is their duty to wait on the workmen and help them in all kinds of ways.

Moreover, what Taylor meant by “functional foremanship” is what we now call “matrix organization.” He had nothing to do with “classical organization” and its “hierarchy”; it clearly runs contrary to Taylor’s basic principles.

The True Taylor

Contrary to everything one reads about Taylor, he was concerned neither with profits nor with costs. His concern was what we today would call “productivity” (a word unknown seventy years ago). Far from being an admirer of management, Taylor was exceedingly critical of it: “Nine-tenths of our trouble has been to bring those on the management side to do their fair share of the work, and only one-tenth of our trouble has come on the workmen’s side.”

He did not hesitate, in his Testimony, to speak of U.S. Steel’s management as “deplorable” and indeed “shameful.” He repeatedly, and with great bitterness, attacked the people in top management who refused to pay a worker more than the “going wage” and who opposed “scientific management” because a worker under it will immediately earn $6.50 a day, where the “going wage” at the time was $5 a day. He was forced out as superintendent of Midvale Steel—the company where he had begun as an apprentice journeyman at age eighteen and where he first developed what was later to be known as “scientific management”—because he insisted on giving the workers the full benefit of their increased productivity, rather than keep wages low and raise profits. Altogether, most managements of the time kept him out of their plants as a “dangerous radical” and “troublemaker.”

Taylor strongly believed in teamwork. He went to great lengths, in his Testimony, to point to the Mayo Medical Clinic as the finest example of “scientific management” at work, because it had succeeded in enabling a group of ten physicians and surgeons to work together as one team.

Taylor equally did not, as everybody seems to believe, want to give management all the control and to divorce the worker from management. On the contrary, this is what he said—and practiced:

… under this new type of management, there is hardly a single act or piece of work done by anyone in the shop which is not preceded and followed by some act on the part of one of the men in the management.

… First the workman does something; then the man on the management side does something and then the workman does something; and under this intimate, close, personal cooperation between the two sides, it becomes practically impossible to have a serious problem.

Indeed, Taylor considered “scientific management” a joint task of management and workers.

Finally, Taylor had absolutely nothing to do with the assembly line. There is no shred of evidence that Otto Doering of Sears, Roebuck and Henry Ford, who—between 1903 and 1910—developed the first assembly lines in the mail order house and the automobile plant respectively, had ever heard of Taylor or of “scientific management.” Taylor certainly had never heard of the assembly line. In 1911–12, when Taylor last wrote (he was only fifty-six years old by then, but already aging), the assembly line was still below the horizon. It did not become fully visible until after the end of World War I, by which time Taylor was dead. And there is ample reason to believe that Taylor would have been highly critical of the assembly line and would have considered it very poor engineering. It violates his basic principles: the freeing of the initiative of the individual worker; the strengthening of the work group; and, above all, the finding, training, and developing of the individual for the job he is best fitted for.

Flying in the Face of Ignorance

There are few cases in intellectual history where what a man actually said and did, and what he is generally believed to have said and done, are so totally at variance. The question, therefore, is why Taylor is being so totally misrepresented.

The standard explanation is that he was a “captive of nineteenth-century psychology.” But this is nonsense. The trouble with Taylor was that he was so far ahead of his time that no one—or very few people—listened, let alone understood what he was saying and doing. In many ways, indeed in most ways, Taylor was a strong believer in what is now called Theory Y. He stated again and again that management by fear was counter-productive. At times he sounds like McGregor, at others, like Argyris—in his constant criticism of the resistance of organization to accepting the worker as a human being, for instance. At times he sounds very much like Frederick Herzberg. He was concerned with the “quality of life.” to use today’s terminology. Early in his Testimony he said:

Scientific management is not an efficiency device, not a device of any kind for securing efficiency. Nor is it any bunch or group of efficiency devices. It is not a new system of figuring costs; it is not a new scheme of paying men; it is not a piecework system; it is not a bonus system; it is not a premium system; it is no scheme for payment; it is not holding a stopwatch on a man and writing things down about him; it is not time study; it is not motion study nor an analysis of the movements of men; it is not divided foremanship or functional foremanship; it is not any of the devices which the average man calls to mind when scientific management is spoken of. In essence, scientific management involves a complete mental revolution on the part of the working men—and on the part of those on the management side, the foreman, the superintendent, the owner of the business, the Board of Directors—as to their duties towards their fellow workers in the management, towards their workmen and toward all of their problems. (emphasis added)

But this was so far ahead of 1910 that few even heard what Taylor said. What people heard instead were the very things which Taylor asserted that scientific management is not. And to this day, those are the things which are taught in most engineering schools as “scientific management” and industrial engineering, and are stated in most books to be what Taylor stood for.

But Taylor also committed the unpardonable offense of proving the “isms” to be irrelevant—and for this neither the Right nor the Left will ever forgive him. The “system,” Taylor implies, hardly matters. Job, task, and work do. The economy is not made by “capitalism” or “socialism.” It is made by productivity. Taylor spoke of the “duty” of owners; he never spoke of their “rights.” He spoke of the “responsibility” of workers; he never spoke of their being “exploited.” In other words, Taylor did not hold the “system” responsible, nor did he expect any great change to come from, a “change in the system.” His “revolution” was a “mental” revolution, and not a social one. This flew directly in the face of the most cherished beliefs of 1910—and it still flies in the face of the prevailing beliefs of today.

This would not matter so much if Taylor had not been successful. Wherever his approach has been applied, productivity has increased manyfold, workers’ real wages have gone up sharply, hours have gone down, and the physical and mental strain on the workers has been reduced. At the same time, sales and profits have gone up and prices have gone down. The more successful Taylor is, the more hostile to him the prevailing ideologies must become.

Finally, there is the horrible fact that Taylor concerned himself with work. Taylor was the first man in history who actually studied work seriously. This is his historical importance. People had, of course, been talking about work since time immemorial. But no one had thought work worthy of serious study. Indeed, work was clearly beneath the attention of educated people.

Taylor was well aware of this: “… the professors of this country … resent the use of the word ‘science’ for anything quite so trivial as the ordinary, everyday affairs of life.” But it was not just the use of the word “science,” even in Taylor’s definition as “classified or organized knowledge of any kind,” which “the professors of this country” (we would say “the intellectuals”) resent and reject. It is altogether the belief that work—sweaty, dirty, back-breaking labor such as shoveling sand or moving pig iron—offers intellectual challenge and could and should be pleasant, rewarding—both economically and psychologically.

“Professors” believe in “creativity.” Taylor believed in systematic, hard, principled work. The “professors” believe in an “elite,” no matter how much they preach “equality.” Taylor did not believe in “equality.” He knew that people differed in their abilities. But he considered everyone a “first-rate man” who did the job and task he was fitted for, and as such entitled to full opportunity, to a good income, and above all, to respect. Management had the duty, he thought, to find what each man was best fitted for, to help him to get there, and to enable him to perform and to achieve by organizing his task, by providing the tools and the information needed, and by giving him adequate managerial support and continuing training. But the “professors” of this world still tend to believe, albeit only unconsciously, that work is something slaves do.

As the World Learns

Among the “makers of the modern world” Taylor is rarely mentioned. And yet he has had as much impact as Marx or Freud. To be sure, we have gone beyond Taylor and need to go beyond him. But to attack Taylor because he had, for instance, more faith in the power of reason to convince and to convert people than we, living after two world wars, can muster, is foolishness. It is very much like attacking Newton because he did not invent non-Euclidean geometry or discover the theory of relativity.

Taylor has triumphed, despite his detractors. He has triumphed where his main concern was—in manual work. When he predicted, in his Testimony, that “the workman of that day [a hundred years hence] will live as well, or almost, as a high-class businessman lives now, as far as the necessities of life and most of the luxuries of life are concerned,” people laughed—yet this is, of course, exactly what has come to pass in the developed countries, and primarily as a result of the application of Taylor’s principles. It has come to pass precisely the way Taylor predicted—namely, by “greatly increasing the output of the man without materially increasing his effort.” It has come about because we have learned to study tasks, to organize them, to plan them, to provide the right tools and the right information—though no one would claim that we have reached perfection.

But Taylor’s greatest impact may still be ahead. In the first place, the underdeveloped and developing countries are now reaching the stage where they need Taylor and “scientific management.” They have now reached the stage where their main aim has to be higher wages and yet lower labor costs—that is, increased productivity of manual work. It is now as true of them as it was for the United States eighty years ago that “underproduction” is mainly responsible for the fact that, as Taylor said of America in 1900, “the poorer people have just so much fewer things to live on; that they have poorer food to eat; pay higher prices for their rent; can buy fewer clothes to wear than they ought to have; in other words, that they lack in many cases the necessities and in all cases the luxuries of life that they ought to have.”

But the need to study Taylor anew and to apply him may be the greatest in the developed countries, that is, in the countries which have become developed because they have applied Taylor’s principles to manual work. These are the countries in which Taylor now has to be applied to knowledge work.

Making Mental Work More Productive

In his writings and in his Testimony, Taylor emphasized that no plant, no factory, and no railroad had used more than a few elements of “scientific management.” The one perfect example of “scientific management” in action, which Taylor cited, was the Mayo Clinic (for which Taylor claimed no credit). Taylor himself, in other words, was fully aware that “scientific management” applies to knowledge work as well as to manual work.

To make knowledge work fully productive requires many things Taylor did not concern himself with. It requires objectives and goals. It requires priorities and measurements. It requires systematic abandonment of the tasks that no longer produce and of the services that are no longer needed. It also requires organization, largely along the lines of the “matrix organization” which Taylor reached for in his “functional foremanship.”

But making knowledge work productive also requires “task study” and “task management.” It requires the analysis of the work itself. It requires, understanding of the steps needed, their sequence and their integration into an organized process. It requires systematic provision of the information needed and of the tool needed. All of these are concepts of “scientific management.” It does not require “creativity.” It requires the hard, systematic, analytical, and synthesizing work which Taylor developed to deal with shoveling sand, lifting pig iron, running paper machines, or laying brick.

Knowledge work already has the high wages which were Taylor’s aim. Now it has to achieve the productivity which alone can justify the high wages. And this requires, above all, changes in “mental attitudes” and Taylor’s “complete mental revolution” on the part of both the knowledge worker and his management.

The need today is neither to bury Taylor nor to praise him. It is to learn from him. The need is to do for knowledge work and knowledge worker what Taylor, beginning a century ago, did for manual work and manual worker.

First published in The Conference Board Record, June 1976.