Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Critique of Scientific Management

Origins of Scientific Management

Scientific management began with Frederick Winslow Taylor, who convinced influential companies such as Bethlehem Steel to hire him as an efficiency expert (Lepore, 2009). Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. His method was to fragment work processes into many discrete pieces, determine how each piece of work should be performed, and create time standards for each piece of work. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth expanded time and motion study by using a motion picture camera to study work processes in slow motion. The Gilbreths also distilled all human work activity into some combination of seventeen different motions, which they dubbed “therbligs” (Gilbreth spelled backwards.) The scientific managers claimed to find the “one best way” to perform any activity and then determined, through time and motion studies, how long said activity should take. According to Buckingham and Coffman (1999) “these scientific experts all base their ideas on the same premise: namely, that each person’s uniqueness is a blemish”(p.112-113).

Problems with Scientific Management

Workers who found themselves laboring under the new scientific management complained of unreasonable demands to speed work along at a pace that was not sustainable over the long term. Management complained of lazy workers and treated workers as interchangeable parts of a machine instead of sentient human beings. Rather than saving time that could be spent in leisure or family pursuits, as envisioned by Lillian Gilbreth, scientific management was instead accompanied by an increased tendency for work to encroach on family time. Lepore (2009) points out that in the late twentieth century Americans added a hundred and sixty-four hours of work annually. This amounts to four extra work weeks squeezed into a year that remains only fifty-two weeks long.

A major problem with scientific management is that, in unscrupulous hands, it ceases to be scientific. Take for example the time study, a cornerstone of Taylor’s methods. The industrial engineer or analyst doing such a study first breaks the job down into discrete parts, then uses a stopwatch to time each part as the study subject is instructed to perform at his normal pace. “Normal” is open to interpretation by the worker and the industrial engineer. In order to best determine the normal time for the task, Smith (1978) instructs the analyst to select a study subject who is skilled and experienced enough to do the job competently, although not exceptionally skilled. After taking the time measurements, the analyst is to rate the subject’s performance, with 100% defined as normal pace (Smith, 1978). Even after careful selection of a test subject and an honest attempt by the analyst to determine a performance rating, however, there may be pressure from management for the analyst to adjust the performance rating to create a standard that is faster than normal. In addition, because workers suspect management wants them to work faster without paying them more, the study subject may work more slowly in order to compensate for the expected cheating by managers. This lack of trust makes it difficult to objectively measure any work.

The adversarial atmosphere between management and subordinates fostered by scientific management is at odds with the findings of the Gallup Organization in a pair of research studies (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999). The studies asked productive employees what they needed from their employers and asked successful managers how they selected and retained talented employees. Buckingham and Coffman (1999) state, “Given the pace of change in today’s business world, one of the most valuable commodities a company can possess is the employees’ ‘benefit of the doubt'”(p.38). Trust is essential in modern organizations in which information and communication are essential to the business-or might even be the business. Information does not flow freely in the absence of trust. Why should workers give the benefit of the doubt to managers they suspect may be cheating?

Proper Use of Scientific Management

Scientific management does have a place: in streamlining repetitive processes, for example. Hammer and Champy (2001) maintain that reengineering, properly used, can empower workers rather than control them. The key is to focus on results rather than mere activity. Reward the right results, and talented people will find the best ways to achieve those results. Buckingham and Coffman (1999) echo this sentiment when they say, “Define the right outcomes and then let each person find his own route toward those outcomes” (p. 111). If managers have done their job in selecting and developing talented employees, they are free to focus on results rather than agonizing over “therbligs” and commissioning time studies.


Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hammer, M. & Champy, J. (2001). Reengineering the corporation. New York: HarperCollins.

Lepore, J. (2009). Not so fast. The New Yorker. [online edition] Retrieved 8/25/2010.

Smith, G., Jr. (1978). Work measurement: A systems approach. Columbus, Ohio: Grid Publishing.

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