Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor was a foreman at Bethlehem Steel Works at the turn of the century. Developed a discipline called scientific management, which included a technique called time and motion studies, which revolutionized productivity in many industries.

Taylor dealt with the problem of how to get more out of workers. One principle he relied on was piecework. This is where you get paid by the number of X that you produce. Part of the manager's job, in Taylor's mind, was to analyze tasks and break them down in such a way that you could pay people on a piecework payment plan.

Another Taylor principle was that the manager does the thinking and the worker does the physical labor. He felt that if you let the worker the thinking, he would not do as good a job as someone who is a specialist in thinking. In particular, the worker would not figure out the best way to do the work. But a manager could analyze the task and figure out scientifically the best way to get it done.

The most famous example is moving pig iron (crude iron that comes in pieces called "pigs" weighing about 92 pounds). The task was simple: to take pig iron from the blast furnace and carry it up a plank onto a railroad car. Taylor studied the men as they did this. At the time, good workers were able to move about 12 tons per day. Based on some elementary bio-mechanical analysis of energy expenditure and efficiency, Taylor calculated that a man in good condition should be able to move 47 tons a day.

Now, he knew that simply telling the workers that this was now going to be the new norm would not work. Even if they were willing, they would surely try to speed everything up, and end up getting tired too quickly, with the possible result of moving even less than 12 tons. Based on his bio-mechanical analysis, Taylor knew that the only way to achieve 47 tons would be to walk at a certain measured pace, to carry it just so, drink water at measured intervals, and to take very frequent but very short breaks, whether the man thought he wanted one or not. So he put the men on a stopwatch, and told them when to move, when to stop, when to breathe, etc.

The very first day, his first subject moved 47 tons.

A key lesson he drew here was the worker himself does not have the means to figure out the best way to do the job. Instead, he does it the way it has always been done, which is not necessarily the best way. So he advocated a strong division of labor between management (thinking) and worker (doing). It is the manager's job to fully understand the worker's task, and to plan a method of doing it, and then forcing the worker to do it that way.

Taylor felt that workers' attempts to do things their own way were detrimental to the company and to the worker (since they would accomplish less and get paid less). He said that a trained gorilla would make a better worker than most humans. Today, this sounds offensive and that sort of attitude would not get very far. Furthermore, the basic focus on the needs of the tasks rather than the needs of the persons has not been in vogue over the last 20 years. Just now, however, as re-engineering gains popularity, the focus is shifting once again on structure over people as the variable to manipulate to improve performance.

Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: June 25, 1997 Go to Home page