Frederick Taylor and the Science of Management

The lasting legacy of the management pioneer

Like any human tool, management is an invention. In the late 1800s, Frederick Taylor was working at Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia, where he rose from machine-shop laborer to chief engineer and machine-shop foreman. At Midvale, Taylor observed that employees were not working the machines as hard as they could, so he set about to systematically measure the productivity of both the laborers and the machines, designing experiments to optimize the factory’s output.

Taylor codified what he learned in a book, The Principles of Scientific Management. The chief innovation was the application of the scientific method to maximize human performance. This approach would become the foundation for much of the 20th Century’s management theory.

The Four Principles of Scientific Management

Through his work at Midvale, Taylor developed four principles for scientific management, which also became known as “Taylorism.”

  1. Replace guess work and “rule-of-thumb” methods with the scientific method to study the tasks at hand.
  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than letting them train themselves.
  3. Monitor worker performance, ensuring the scientific method is being applied to ensure the most efficient ways of working are being followed.
  4. Divide the work between managers and workers, having managers focus on planning and training so workers can do their work efficiently.

Taylorism’s Legacy

One might picture Taylor akin to the caricature of an Excel-wielding, MBA-toting corporate executive: an aloof, calculating individual driven to squeeze profits from the machine of business. In fact, Taylor was a major advocate of training and ensuring prosperity is maximized for both employer and employee. But history has condensed Taylorism to the simple idea that management is the scientific control and application of resources toward a set goal — and that there’s one right way to approach a task.

Scientific management is a great tool for optimizing production in environments where tasks are predictable and repetitive. But in the last one hundred twenty years, how we work has changed dramatically. As the work humans do becomes more complex, disperse, and creative (and as manual and menial tasks become increasingly automated), additional management paradigms are needed to build and lead successful companies and teams.

Taylor’s principles are a helpful glimpse into the foundations of management theory. Their core ideas are still relevant, but like any tool, they can be improved and must be adapted to our current context. As managers, we must be wary of the tool becoming the way, and the way becoming myth.

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Originally published at Manager Companion.

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Unexpected Leadership

Applicable insights, frameworks, and tools for those new to managing others