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As its name suggests, scientific management theory was invented at a time when adding the word ‘scientific’ to a process was still novel enough to count as its own thing. It’s also called Taylorism, after its 19th century inventor, Frederick Taylor. Fundamentally, it’s a system for exploiting your manpower to its maximum potential and streamlining your production to improve efficiency. It aims to bring to bear logic, rationalism, and other basic scientific values to the world of business management by carefully analyzing production methods and standardizing an ideal. Let’s explore it in more detail.
What Is It?
Taylorism aims to get the most out of your workforce and reduce the general cost of labor. To do so it puts into place systems that have been optimized, methods that can be followed by anyone. That way – in theory – you can get the same results from unskilled labor, and pay them less.
So a Taylorist monitor might carefully analyze workers to determine what the best possible way to produce would be, based on timing and even motion studies. From this data, an optimized method would be achieved – the best possible way to perform a given a task. This method would be standardized, and then imitated by all employees.
Taylor gained success with his methods at the dawn of the 20th century, with factories dedicated to his production style. However, it encountered significant opposition by the ‘10s and ‘20s, from both labor organizations who found it exploitative, and rival manufacturers who found it too limited for the exigencies of burgeoning manufacturing techniques.
Scientific management theory tends to improve business efficiency in the short term. By applying rigorous methods to production, it emphasizes results and disdains anything done for its own sake. Entrenched managers with a lifestyle to maintain, workers who’d prefer to idle the day away, and production codes that waste resources are all disdainful to this view. Often this can mean quick boosts in earning potential for the owners and managers.
By seeking to define an optimal method for production and then repeating it ad nauseum, scientific management theory denies the reality of innovation: it’s an ongoing process. There is no one best way that can be standardized, because most modern production systems are in a constant, iterative design process, constantly re-thinking and re-working business models according to the requirements of emerging technologies.
Taylorism isn’t very good at innovation, and innovation is the linchpin of today’s economy. It doesn’t allocate many of its resources to improving business functions after they’ve been instituted, leaving companies open to the danger of fossilization. To the small degree that it does, it’s performed from the top down – not horizontally integrated the way many exciting discoveries arise. Low-wage drones performing mindless repetitive tasks are unable to participate in the overall success of the company, and this can stymie the creative advantage of the firm.
Scientific management theory is an interesting but largely outdated method of running a business. Its intuitive points can be of some interest to modern managers, but its weaknesses – since its disappearance in the ‘30s – have become apparent.