Management theory conceptualizes tools, frameworks and guidelines to motivate employees and accomplish goals. Frederick Taylor, an American mechanical engineer in the late 1890s and early 1900s, prioritized improving industrial efficiency. His management theory, published in the 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management, focused on the idea of simplifying jobs to increase efficiency.
While many management theories have come and gone since Taylor’s, his method continues to have merit in several capacities. Even if all facets aren’t a fit for your company, small businesses can adapt parts of his theory to increase team collaboration and progress toward shared goals.
Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory, also called the classical management theory, emphasizes efficiency, much like Max Weber’s management theory. However, according to Taylor, employers should reward workers for increased productivity rather than scolding employees for every minor mistake, as someone might do if following Weber’s strict, bureaucratic style of management.
“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee,” Taylor said. “The words ‘maximum prosperity’ are used, in their broad sense, to mean not only large dividends for the company or owner, but the development of every branch of the business to its highest state of excellence, so that the prosperity may be permanent.”
Taylor’s theory hinges on four principles that he saw as key to increasing company efficiency and achieving that maximum prosperity for both the business and its employees.
As seen in the third principle, Taylor believed in the importance of collaboration among teams – with trust given to employees to carry out duties to the best of their abilities and the responsibility of training and optimizing processes given to managers. His theory had clear objectives: “Science, not rule of thumb. Harmony, not discord. Cooperation, not individualism. Maximum output, in place of restricted output. [And] the development of each [person] to [their] greatest efficiency and prosperity.”
Taylor’s pro-employee approach to efficiency was ahead of its time. His general principles have gained traction in today’s business climate, where the Great Resignation has seen workers shunning toxic work environments and prioritizing work-life balance. [Check out our worker job satisfaction study to see what else matters to employees these days.]
While Taylor’s theory makes for more efficient workers, it is not without flaws. Many of the subtasks Taylor favored may be considered menial by some employees and could cause workers to feel like they’re part of an assembly line instead of contributing creatively to the business. Some critics have also argued Taylor’s writings are robotic and impersonal, while others have drawn attention to his framework’s lack of growth potential for individuals with advanced skills.
Whenever his theory broke down in practice, Taylor would attribute the error to improper application, such as managers being unwilling to depart from inefficient traditional procedures and management driving employees to complete more work for the same pay. However, when properly executed, improved productivity is still a valuable result of Taylor’s practices, and depending on your industry, his theory could be a great addition to your business.
The basic principles of Taylor’s management theory may come off as robotic and cold, but its value is evident in the win-win scenarios it aims to create for employers and employees.
To succeed with Taylor’s management theory where other companies may have faltered, we recommend carefully implementing his scientific principles into your business’s workflow and making adjustments as needed.
Rather than assigning an entire project to one individual and allowing them the proper time to complete it, managers embracing Taylor’s theory should break down larger tasks into smaller parts. These subtasks are meant to make the process more organized and efficient, with multiple employees working on one assignment and each individual taking care of their own piece.
Assignments can break down into several levels. Managers can divide a months-long project into natural phases, with designated project managers who then assign subtasks to employees on their teams with specialized roles. Those employees may choose to manage their own subtasks by breaking them down further into daily action items that move toward project completion or achieve an overall goal.
Breaking down assignments relies on another critical part of Taylor’s theory: collaboration. Delegating tasks to others and facilitating open communication between managers, project managers and employees answers questions and keeps all parties involved in project updates so every task is completed in harmony. [See the most effective apps for internal communication and the best project management software to help your company succeed in this area.]
According to Taylor’s theory, executives should measure the most efficient way to complete a given task, then delegate the subtasks only to employees with the proper skills and abilities to complete said task. Management should train those workers in whatever method was identified to complete the assignment most efficiently.
In many businesses, workers’ roles tend to be specific and fixed, and their tasks basic and repetitive. As a result, employees may feel insignificant, completing the same chore for hours on end. In Taylor’s view, each worker plays a crucial role in a company’s success, and setting expectations can transform employee attitudes. When leaders delegate tasks to employees, each staffer should understand how vital they are to the success of the project and why their skill set was chosen over their peers’.
In addition, when managers delegate tasks to someone who needs additional training, transparent, two-way communication is necessary to achieve the desired results. Rather than hiding gaps in knowledge or choosing to do sloppy work, employees are responsible for asking questions to ensure they fully understand their assignments. Conversely, the manager remains responsible for providing training and troubleshooting – and building a positive relationship with employees that welcomes questions and feedback.
If you’re a small business with just a few employees who often juggle several different responsibilities, Taylor’s theory may not bring more efficiency or productivity to your daily operations. Consider alternatives, like Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s management theory and the management theory developed by Mary Parker Follett.
There is no point in administering new processes if you’re not going to evaluate how successfully they work. It is equally vital to measure employee performance. You can’t achieve Taylor’s goal of maximum prosperity if you’re not monitoring what is and isn’t increasing efficiency for your business and your workforce. Supervisors need to ensure each worker below them is doing their job efficiently, and if a more productive practice is discovered, workers should be retrained to implement it in their work.
As a recent example, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many businesses to reexamine processes – especially in-office attendance. The “we’ve always done it this way” reasoning lost its ground when global shutdowns occurred and decision-makers realized many types of employees could complete their work, often with better efficiency, at home. After shutdowns ended, businesses evaluated how their operations had changed and, based on what they saw, prioritized work-from-home productivity and increased employee satisfaction over inefficient in-person procedures, illustrating Taylor’s theory in practice.
Most companies have various levels of workers. Typically, the more experience and drive you have, the more likely you are to land an executive position. This is how much of the business world operates.
Taylor believed in a similar hierarchy of three levels, with the most powerful workers on top. Each level is given precise responsibilities and detailed instructions specific to them. Managers and employees alike respect and adhere to those above them and do only what is assigned to them.
While divisions of labor won’t always appear equal, leaders should strive to allocate tasks to specialized roles and clearly state expectations – and the value of the employee’s work to the company’s overall goals – to ensure collaboration and optimal performance.
Frederick Taylor is considered one of the first management consultants in America.
While Taylor’s scientific management theory won’t work for every business or industry, it does provide advantages for specific organizations. Keep in mind that an all-encompassing method may not work in today’s business world, especially for companies with creative or fluid roles where employees and managers value flexibility, room for growth and the ability to pivot disciplines.
Industries that are well suited to Taylor’s theory include the following.
By combining Taylor’s principles of harmonious collaboration and role specialization with existing approaches that prioritize workplace satisfaction, business owners can use Taylor’s management style to ensure their firms are operating efficiently.
Sammi Caramela contributed to the writing and research in this article.