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Scientific Management: Application of Frederick Winslow Taylor's theory in Contemporary Management

Updated on April 14, 2013

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The following is a critical analysis of Scientific Management limited to 1200 words. It received a distinction grade at university and is a reliable source of information. However, please note that marks were lost for statements which are too definitive as opposed to suggestive. Don't forget to reference properly!

Scientific Management: a critical analysis

This essay seeks to analyse the criticisms for and against scientific management to show that it is neither a perfect unified theory, nor completely inadequate. Instead this essay suggests that Taylor’s management theory is subject to proper application and the environment where it is applied. The primary source used; by Edwin A. Locke (1982) suggests Taylor’s views were fundamentally correct, have been generally accepted and that most of the major criticisms of the theory are unjustified.

The first half of the review explains the various concepts of Taylorism (or for another look at the theory, check out this hub). This could be summarised as assigning the right person the right job with the correct tools and equipment, have the worker follow instructions directly and motivate them with financial incentives. The second half of the review systematically discusses some of the more common criticisms of scientific management and why such arguments are flawed. Locke makes a convincing argument, but his defence of Taylor’s concepts revolves mostly around the inaccuracies of negative criticism and not the specific concepts. As a result, the article has a rather biased undertone.

Scientific management has proven to increase efficiency and assist in maximising profits, but what about conflict? Taylor claimed that the goals of management and employees were not mutually exclusive. According to Taylor (as cited in Locke, 1982) there were virtually no strikes in plants in which he applied scientific management.

Taylor was certainly right in believing that finding a common goal would reduce the conflict between management and workers. His mistake was the belief that there would be no conflict over how to divide the pie as long as the pie was large enough (Taylor, as cited in Locke, 1982).

The idea was undermined by opportunistic managers. Wagner-Tsukamoto (2007) points out that opportunistic rule-setting by managers aimed to disadvantage and exploit workers (p. 106). Perhaps this is why scientific management is so widely viewed as “exploiting employees as much as possible to gain maximum benefits for employers” (Maqbool, Zakariya & Naveed Paracha, 2011, p.846). Nine-tenths of the trouble comes from those on the management side in applying scientific management, and only one-tenth from the workers. Difficulties are almost entirely with management (Taylor, as cited in Wagner-Tsukamoto, 2007). The problem is not the theory, but rather its application.

Misapplication and misunderstanding are also observed in regards to the specialisation of labour. A large number of academics claim that scientific management requires the ‘de-skilling’ of workers. Marshall (as cited in Caldari, 2007) states that: “foremen have some interest in getting the most work that they can out of each man as he is, but they seldom take account of what he might become”. Taylor (as cited in Locke, 1982) points out an important fact in regards to this; people who do jobs that require minimal mental capacity should be people who have minimal mental capacity.

Nyland (1996) states that Taylor’s techniques should be applied not to de-skill workers but to transform the unskilled into semi-skilled. Henry Ford is a good example of this misapplication, because he refused to undertake the program of training and skill upgrading demanded by Taylor (Nyland, 1996).

Taylor eventually realised that there was not a single organisation which applied his theory in its entirety, although many applied elements that suited their purposes (Taylor, as cited in Mentzer, 2010). It could be suggested that this is a sign that parts of the theory were severely flawed. Nyland (1996) however suggests that “replacement of rule of thumb with science and caprice with friendly cooperation between employers and workers were essential to scientific management; without conforming to them, it is not scientific management” (p.987). This means that scientific management can be applied to sections of an organisation rather than the whole, but it must be applied in its entirety or at least conforming to the mentioned factors if it is going to work.

In 2010 a major producer of Apple products; Foxconn, had an outbreak in factory worker suicides due to the exhausting working conditions and an average of 120 overtime hours per month (Moore, 2010). There is no doubt that dehumanisation plays a role in the application of scientific management, but the fact is that economically it works. Perhaps modern organisations are leaning too much towards the efficiency of the workers and not enough into the efficiency of their tools. The idea is to make their jobs more efficient and easier, not harder.

“Foxconn says that 8000 people a day apply for jobs at its factory” (Moore, 2010, para. 19). This raises an important point. The efficiency of standardisation creates jobs in populations high in unskilled labour. As long as employees are not pushed to a breaking point, the benefit of desperately needed employment outweighs the monotony of the job. However, it would be unwise for an employee to work in a particularly standardised environment if their needs exceed the basics classified by Maslow. Working on a factory line brings financial security; which then provides for fulfillment of physiological and safety needs, but it doesn’t promote areas of personal esteem or self-actualisation.

Scientific management does not have to be applied to an entire organisation to be useful. It must be realised that all departments need not be placed on the same basis. “One system might be applied advantageously to some departments while in others an attempt to apply the same system would prove disastrous” (“Case studies in business”, 2009, p. 108).

Case studies in business (2009) uses a hypothetical piano company to show this (p. 106). The company produces high quality pianos of only five kinds. Although the product is expensive, the company has no problem finding customers. No cost is spared in ensuring the quality of the product, which is made by highly skilled craftsmen from pre-selected materials. It takes around two years to make a piano and they all end up slightly different.

Scientific management focuses on increasing efficiency, but not quality. Reducing the whole system to scientific management would completely change the final product. Scientific management could however be applied to inventories to ensure that the craftsmen have sufficient materials at hand (“Case studies in business”, 2009, p.108). Standardisation could be implemented for the production of various parts of the piano, such as keys or strings. Unskilled workers could be hired and trained for these specific purposes. Workers who display the initiative could be apprenticed into craftsmanship, also ensuring a continual supply of skilled workers. The result would make the craftsman’s job much easier and speed up the production process.

“Where craftsmanship is required to produce fine quality, and standardisation is difficult because of the variation of materials, scientific management may be uneconomical or difficult to apply” (“Case studies in business”, 2009, p. 111). It is more applicable to the creation or preparation of materials used in a final product. Standardisation would likely work for producing the chain of a custom ordered bicycle, but not the creation of the bicycle itself.

Scientific management is also dangerously adverse to progress on a large scale (Caldari, 2007, p.75). The process of standardisation reduces flexibility in large firms and prevents quick reactions to market change. Therefore scientific management is best suited to small firms or industries which do not need to adapt to change often (Caldari, 2007).

This essay has given a brief overview of the limitations and successes of scientific management in regards to its application and environment. Employees should be selected to meet the needs of standardisation, as opposed to de-skilling the workforce to meet proposed standardisation. The theory should only be applied to low quality or simple tasks and large firms should only apply scientific management to relatively inelastic products where market change has less effect. Organisations would be unwise to blindly replace all systems with scientific management but only those sections where increased speed and efficiency support the other departments. Applying it to the whole organisation will likely damage employee morale, product quality and market flexibility.

References


Caldari, K. (2007). Alfred Marshall’s critical analysis of scientific management. History of Economic Thought, 14(1), 55-78.

“Case studies in business”. (2009 October 25). Harvard Business Review, 4(1), 106-111.

Locke, A. (1982) The ideas of Frederick W. Taylor: An evaluation. Academy of Management Review, 7(1), 14-24

Maqbool, M., Zakariya, A, & Paracha, A. N. (2011). A critique on scientific management, Interdisciplinary Journal Of Contemporary Research In Business, 3(4), 844-851

Mentzer, M. S. (2010). Scientific management and the american hotel. Management and Organisational History, 5(3-4), 428-446.

Moore, M. (2010, May 27). Inside Foxconn’s suicide factory. The Telegraph. Retrieved on the 23rd March, 2012 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/china-business/7773011/A-look-inside- the-Foxconn- suicide-factory.html

Nyland, C. (1996). Taylorism, John R. Commons, and the hoxie report, Journal of Economic Issues, 3(4), 985-1014

Wagner-Tsukamoto, S. (2007). An institutional economic reconstruction of scientific management: on the lost theoretical logic of Taylorism. Academy of Management Review, 32(1), 105- 114.

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      Ryan J Lee, completed as a student of business at the University of Newcastle Australia.

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