Is Scientific Management Theory Relevant in the Modern Workplace?

Updated: November 12, 2022 is reader-supported. When you buy through links on my site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

The scientific management theory is sometimes referred to as Taylor’s Motivation Theory. It was one of the hypotheses that explain what drives workplace motivation. 

Boosting workplace motivation sometimes feels like a long-lost art. For some reason, giving a rousing speech about meeting the company’s targets no longer does the trick. Not for long anyway.

Motivation theories are helpful for workplace leadership who want to improve a team’s performance. These theories are scientifically backed methods and models.

Taylor’s Scientific Management theory aims to discover the most efficient way of accomplishing any task. 

Background of Scientific Management Theory

Frederick Winslow Taylor believed that universal laws govern efficiency. He also thought that these laws could not be influenced by human judgment. 

Shortly before the 1900s, there was no management as we know it today. There was hardly any variation in the way people worked. It was the same methods used year in, year out. The work process changing did not occur to anyone until the time of Frederick Taylor. 

Taylor’s theory is recognized as a scientific study. He developed it from the same techniques used by chemists and botanists. Methods such as observation, rationality, logic, synthesis, and analysis are used in his study. 

The scientific management evolution during Taylor’s time created some radical ideas for the 1900s. Some of them included employee education and implementing standardized processes to increase productivity.

As you keep reading on, you may be horrified about how much anti-worker Taylor’s ideas were. However, we must give the man credit for creating what is now known as professionalism. 

The Rise of Scientific Management Theory

During the time before the industrial revolution, people ran most businesses at small scale. They had three or four people carrying the daily activities. When it came to working, the shop management toiled next to their employees. They closely managed the work. 

When the Industrial Revolution finally came to the United States, it changed the dynamics of the workplace. The new relationship between a factory owner, factory manager, and workers was not a close one.

The employers on the floor controlled the work process. They only put in the amount of effort that would keep them from being fired. There was no incentive to do any better than the bare minimum.

Taylor was a mechanical engineer whose interest was in the kind of work done in mechanical shops and factories. He observed the workers realize that the factory owners knew little about what went on at the work floor.

Taylor believed his system could increase labor productivity. He needed an incentive to work—and it was money.

He then proposed that the workers be paid based on the amount of work accomplished. Each worker had targets to fulfill. If they didn’t, then they did not deserve to be working.

Taylor implied that management and workers should work together to meet the company goals. He was the pioneer of the idea that a manager’s main role should be planning and training employees.

Taylor published his book, The Principles of Scientific Management, in 1909. In the book that is still read to this day, he suggested the following:

  • Productivity will increase if jobs were simplified and optimized
  • Match workers to the job that suited their skill level and then train them to do that job in a specific way
  • Break down a job into small parts and time each segment to find out which is more efficient

Management theorists Frank and Lillian Gilbreth came up with other theories. Their idea was to film workers to examine their motion. This concept birthed Motion Study. Their ideas developed into what we now know as time and motion studies. The studies analyze the most productive way you can use to perform a task.

4 Principles of Scientific Management Theory

At the heart of the scientific management theory, there are four governing principles

  1. Look at the jobs scientifically to discover the one “most excellent” way to do the job. This was a significant deviation from the “rule of thumb” approach when workers produced their task methods.
  2. Hire skilled workers for each job, then train them to operate at maximum productivity.
  3. Evaluate every worker’s performance and provide training opportunities where necessary.
  4. Division of labor was split between the management and workers. While the management plans and executes, the workers perform a task.

Taylor’s system was intended for factories where the amount of work could be quantified, broken down, and standardized. He was more concerned about economic efficiency than the welfare of the workers. This all led to big businesses producing mass production of goods. 

The concept of scientific management became popular among businesses and factories. It was a success. Wherever Taylor’s ideas were adopted, productivity increased.

Criticisms of Taylor

Not everyone agrees with the ideas presented in scientific management theories. Criticisms of the ideas center around the following arguments:

  • The volume of production increases, but the process creates monotonous jobs with zero autonomy.
  • The theory was thought to benefit both the factory and its workers, but the reality was far from that truth. It helps the company far more than it would ever satisfy the worker. This fact has been responsible for most of the industrial strikes spanning 100 years.
  • One can argue that elements of scientific management are dehumanizing. Workers are not permitted to think for themselves. They are required to follow a set of instructions as quickly as humanly possible. 

Scientific Management Theory in the Post-Taylor World

Taylor’s book changed the workplace dynamics permanently. If you think that a theory 100 years old would have no place in today’s fast-paced world, you would be so wrong. 

A lot of your professional experiences to this day can be attributed to Frederick Taylor. Some of the practices that he pioneered in the workplace include the following:

  • Performance reviews
  • Organization charts
  • Quality measurements and metrics
  • Production/sales targets

Giant companies such as Amazon, McDonalds, and FedEx use a new version of scientific management theory. These companies found a way to maximize employee performance by systemizing workplace tools and procedures.

Managers can dismiss workers and hire a new person, and the productivity will be unaffected. This is the gift of standardization.

The opponents of this management system have the same arguments as the ones criticizing Taylor’s first theory. They argue diminished creativity, which requires all-around supervision. It is ruthless on employees who do not meet the standard. 

How to Implement Scientific Management in the Workplace

Now that you know how scientific management works and the theory behind it, it’s your turn to implement it yourself. You don’t want to be left behind by your competitors. You can use the policies of scientific management by following the four steps below.

1. Review Work Processes

You can help your company discover their own most efficient way of finishing a job—test different methods of doing a job to discover the method that takes the least amount of time. 

Your scientific management department will analyze your findings. Next, they will standardize the most productive way of finishing the task. 

Employees will be retained if that is necessary.

2. Delegate Tasks

Managers should not bury one employee under a bunch of tasks. As a manager, you should break down the complex tasks or one long project to different employees. 

If you do this, each employee will focus on their part of the job and complete it efficiently.

3. Play to Your Employees’ Strengths and Provide Incentives

Company managers should be familiar with the more skilled workers. They can assign jobs that correspond with their talents to boost their productivity. 

Furthermore, managers can set goals and promise bonuses upon exceptional performance. 

Supervisors should also evaluate employee performances and provide feedback for improvement.

4. Professional Hierarchy

Make your employees understand their roles and who they should report to. This information establishes a workplace hierarchy.

It is the manager’s role to establish a workplace process and train the employees on the same process. 

Frederick Taylor’s scientific work laid the foundation for mass-production techniques. Scientific management theory, aka Taylorism, may sound outdated. But it is still very much alive in the modern workplace culture.

The principles are still widely applied, especially in labor-intensive industries. These types of companies operate in a cutthroat environment. They need to keep their costs low and output high to stay afloat. 

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