Does Taylorism remaing dominant on work design within large firms

The origin of modern management consulting dates back to the early 1900’s when Frederick Winslow Taylor published his work, The Principles of Scientific Management. In his study, Taylor described how scientific methods could be applied to greatly improve worker productivity in firms. Scientific management methods called for finding the one “best” way in which a task could be performed and standardizing it, so that workers could be trained to perform these specialized sequence of motions over and over again (NetMba, 2010). This essay will primarily attempt to discus a proposition that Scientific Management in the 21st centaury dominates the work design within large firms. Starting with what scientific management is and how it evolved, we will analyze some modern day examples of firms that have adopted Taylorist approach in their businesses. Further, we highlight both strengths and weaknesses of this approach and draw a conclusion whether firms in the modern era, prefer basing their business on the principles stated by Taylor in 1911.

Adam Smith, the father of Economics, originally developed scientific management the 1800s. Interested in a factory that operated and produced pins at the rate of 20 pins per employees per day, he applied division of labour i.e. breaking down of complex tasks into numerous simple tasks. As a result of this change, each employee produced 4800 pins per day, a staggering 23900% increase in productivity. However, the greatest breakthrough in scientific management came during the industrial revolution when factories were only focussed on increasing output levels. Workers during this period were trained through lengthy apprenticeships and followed “Rules of Thumb” i.e. they enjoyed much initiative and control on how their tasks were completed. It was here when Taylor, an advisor at the Bethlehem Steel plant, started working towards improving worker productivity after observing gross inefficiencies during his contact with the steel workers. He conducted “Time and Motion Study” to prove that labour productivity was largely inefficient due to workforce functioning by “Rules of Thumb” rather than well defined procedures.

Taylor’s objective was to take away much autonomy and control from workers convert skilled crafts into a series of simplified jobs, each performed an unskilled worker who easily could be trained for the task. In other words, Taylor wanted to deskill workers and wanted them to be specialised in one segment or a task of production. Constant repetition of this task would result in better productivity output and higher quality. This way, factories could function day and night, as there was no dearth of un-skilled labour that could work in shifts. He employed a young man to analyse all operations and the motions performed in each and to time the motions with a stopwatch. In this way, he could determine the optimum time needed to complete a task and hence 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).

The life and works of Henry Fayol and Max Webber ran chronologically parallel to those of Taylor (Chapter10, The emergence of management and organization theory). According to Claude George (1968), while Taylor’s approach to creating an efficient structure for an organisation was ‘bottom up’ in which he concentrated on improving efficiency and motivation of staff on the bottom of the structure i.e. the shop floor. Fayol and Webber had a rather different view of structure improvement. They were ‘top down’ and aimed at improving the management or top section of the hierarchy of an organisation. George quotes Fayol to support his argument. In the classic General and Industrial Management Fayol wrote, “Taylor’s approach differs from the one we have outlined in that he examines the firm from the “bottom up.” He starts with the most elemental units of activity — the workers’ actions — then studies the effects of their actions on productivity, devises new methods for making them more efficient, and applies what he learns at lower levels to the hierarchy…(Fayol, 1987, p. 43).”

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After years of various experiments to determine optimal work methods, Taylor proposed the four principles of scientific management. First, replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks. Second, scientifically select, train, and develop each worker rather than passively leaving them to train themselves. Third, cooperate with the workers to ensure that the scientifically developed methods are being followed. And finally, 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.

The First major firm to adopt these principles of scientific management was Ford, and others were quick to follow. Henry ford believed that the more cars they produce, the more they can sell. His main objective was to mass-produce. Hence he built an assembly-line system, with a constantly moving conveyor belt and minute subdivision of labour. 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). Taylor’s system insured the most efficient work process was selected and standardized. This way, Ford could employ staff for as cheap as possible and yet keep the quality and efficiency at a satisfactory level. Workers were now working at the pace of the assembly line. Before the assembly line was setup, each car chassis was assembled by one man, taking a time of about twelve and a half hours. Later, with standardization and sub division, the total labour time was reduced to ninety-three minutes per car. This movement of Ford was given the name of ‘Fordism’. However, this was a bit different from Taylor’s idea of differentiated piece rate system to motivate employees. Ford rather, invested in technology and employed cheap labour to work at the speed of the assembly line.

In the 21st century, almost all businesses run on the basis of scientific management, be it manufacturing plants, restaurants, hospitals or call centers. It is not that managers study Taylorism before adopting it; in fact these methods of working are so logical that it’s quite natural to base an efficient business on these principles. One of the biggest users of scientific management in the 21st century is McDonalds, the world’s largest chain of fast food restaurants. They have setup their business on the similar lines of a what Henry Ford did to his manufacturing plant, by implementing a human assembly line, where they use food items instead of car parts, and churn out “Fast Food” instead of automobiles. They follow the highest levels of standardization and sub division. George Ritzer in his book “The McDonaldization of Society” notes a similar philosophy in a McDonalds staff, “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). Clearly, McDonalds is setting the highest standards of employing scientific management. McDonalds framchises around the world use the methods to prepare food, clean floor and promote staff. This level of standardization in food and service has allowed McDonalds to become the biggest and the most successful restaurant chain in the world (Peters and Waterman 1982, p. 173-174).

However, this implementation of scientific management does not come without criticism. There are some limitations of adapting such levels of standardization and division of labour. The tasks that employees perform are so repetitive and boring that it’s hard to motivate employees to do the job whole-heartedly. Also, by asking employees to perform so simple tasks, their skill and talent is wasted and this also hinders their learning and growth. Its encouraging them to underperform.

To understand how Taylorism is reducing the need of human workers we can draw various analogies to it. One of them is an analogy with how software is developed using programmers who write the program code and machines that execute the code and generate the output. By giving detailed instructions to workers to do a particular tasks, managers act as programmers and workers as machines that execute the given instructions and generate the output. These workers (or machines) are not allowed to apply their knowledge or ideas to the task and are required to strictly adhere to what has been given to them. So the output produced is mostly a test of the manager’s (or programmer’s) skills rather than the worker’s ability.

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Another analogy can be drawn to how music is composed and played using various instruments. A musician composes a piece of music and plays it on an instrument to feel how it sounds. If we compare this to a Taylorist approach in manufacturing, the managers can be compared with musicians and the workers to mere instruments who have no control over the output that is generated. The music that comes out of the instrument is the musician’s skills ( or the manager’s skill) and instruments (or workers) are just used as a .

A necessary consequence of the separation of conception and execution is that the labour process is now divided between separate sites and separate bodies of workers. In one location, the physical process of production are executed. In another are concentrated the design, planning, calculation and reord-keeping. The preconception of the process before it is set in motion, the visualization of eac worler’s activities before they have actually begun, the definition of each function along with the time it will consume, the control of checking of the ongoing process once it is under way, and the assessment of results upon completion of each stage of the process-all of these aspects of production have been removed from the shop floor to the management office. The physical process of production are now carried out more or less blindly, not only by the workers who perform them, but often by low rank supervisory employees as well. The production unit operates like a hand, watched, corrected and cotrolled by a distant brain (The degradation of work in the Twentieth century, by Harry Braverman)

Another Modern day classic example of scientific management is the design of call centers. It represents a capitalist economic ideal where technology, targets, teamwork and Taylorism become interdependent (Francastel, 2000 and In a sense, the design of the call center is more inclined towards a fordist management style. It is highly dependent on technology, the software running the technology replicates the conyeyor belt design and the workers are trained to repeat ad infinitum the same scripted words over and over again. Companies operating in one part of the world often setup/outsource their customer care call centers into countries like India where labour is very cheap.

Taylorism Dominant in IT companies in India:

Companies such as Infosys in India, hire students in bulk. 300 – 400 per college from engineering colleges and are put to work that is much below their potential for a wage that lets them earn huge amounts of profits. These students often work as per strict instructions for a period of 2-3 years before they can move to managerial positions.

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 article will demonstrate that Dennison preceded Mayo in proffering the view that humans are not merely the egoistic, utilitarian animals of mainstream economics and Scientific Management, but that they have other (high-level) psychosocial needs, and their social relationships at work play an important role in their productivity (Henry S. Dennison, Elton Mayo, and Human Relations historiography – Kyle Bruce, Aston Business School)

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. (

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While scientific management principles improved productivity and had a substantial impact on industry, they also increased the monotony of work. The core job dimensions of skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback all were missing from the picture of scientific management. While in many cases the new ways of working were accepted by the workers, in some cases they were not. Complaints that Taylorism was dehumanizing led to an investigation by the United States Congress. Despite its controversy, scientific management changed the way that work was done, and forms of it continue to be used today.

Adam Smith wrote his economics from the stance of what was rationally human, which was an individual striving for the best rewards in a market that functioned like an invisible hand. It is as if the sinfulness of humankind (individual greed) was put to good use. He advocated the division of labour into small units of specialized and therefore most productive work. Max Weber saw bureaucracy as a rational outcome of economic organisation once charisma and tradition did not affect how we did things. For Weber, people in their pigeon hole doing their job and only their job was a depressing outcome. Put the two together and the result is Taylorism. It turns the human being into the simplest narrowest operative, trained to what he or she is best at, and then that is all they ever do, with management functions elsewhere. (

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.






George, Claude S., 1968. The history of management thought: Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall


1. Dale, Ernest. (1973), Management, Theory & Practice. McGraw-Hill Publication.

2. Kelly, John. (1982), Scientific Management, Job Redesign, & Work Performance. Academic Press.

3. Marcouse, I. et al. (1996), The Complete A-Z Business Studies Handbook, Hodder & Stoughton.

4. Nelson, David. (1980), Frederick W Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management. The University of Wisconsin Press.

5. Peters, Tom & Waterman, Robert. (1988) In Search Of Excellence. Harper & Row Publications.

6. Ritzer, George. (2000) The McDonaldization Of Society. Sage Publications Inc.

7. Sheldrake, John. (2003), Management Theory. Second Edition. Thomson Publications.

8. Taylor, Frederic. (1998), The Principles of Scientific Management. Re-Published. Originally published in 1911. Dover Publications.

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