What is Scientific Management Theory?

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What is Scientific Theory of Management?

The scientific theory of management focuses on individual efficiency and productivity. The father of this theory is Fredrick Winslow Taylor (1890-1940), from his text “Principles of Scientific Management (1911)”. His proposal was to apply principles of the scientific method to the practice of management. His influence is such that the scientific theory of management is often referred to as “Taylorism”.

What was Taylorism, and how did it give rise to Scientific Management Theory?

The objective of the scientific theory is to increase production within an organization by increasing the productivity of the individual. Taylor envisioned “one best way” to perform an organizational task.

Taylor’s research focused on repetitive, routine tasks – rather than complex or problem-solving activities. Each task was carefully specified and measured. If these tasks could be standardized they could be made more efficient. For example, these types of activities could be largely automated through the introduction of technology.

Taylor employed timing measures to routine tasks to identify efficiencies and reduce wasted effort. He also sought to optimize equipment or resources employed in these routine tasks. By customizing equipment (or technology) he was able to add efficiency to individual effort.

Further, Taylor proposed an award and punishment system to incentivize efficient practice. Employees who adapted to efficient techniques were rewarded as a result of higher productivity. Employees who were unable or unwilling to adapt were punished.

Taylor’s, can be summarized as follows:

  • Use the scientific method in planning activities – replace any existing practices or rules of thumb.
  • Separate the planning function from the actual work activity.
  • Standardize the process, time, equipment, and costs across all processes.
  • Workers must be selected and appropriately trained for his/her respective role.
  • Time, motion and fatigue figures should be employed to determine the allocation of effort between workers.
  • Cooperate with or facilitate workers in the execution of their responsibilities.
  • Work must have functional supervisors who have the knowledge to oversee the respective field of work.
  • Responsibilities should be specifically allocated between workers and managers.
  • Provide financing incentives as motivation for employee productivity increases.

As you can imagine, this system is based upon principles of comparative advantage. Individuals are prepared to perform specific tasks as part of a greater process. This specialization allows for greater efficiency.

What are the negative aspects of Scientific Management Theory?

Taylor’s principles functioned well for routine tasks, such as assembly lines or production facilities. These principles did not function as well in organizations where knowledge and decision-making are central at each level of the value delivery process. This is particularly true for service-based (rather than product-based) industries.

Further, Taylor’s principles garnered significant criticism for its effect on workers. Many argued that it treated humans as beasts of burden, dehumanizing them. It often leads to poor working conditions in which employers reaped greater benefits while employees earned very small increases in compensation.

The scientific theory focused exclusively on efficiency. It did little to understand the employee or to develop the manager as a leader. Naturally, these shortcomings lead to subsequent innovations in management theory.

Who are the Major Contributors to Scientific Management Theory?

As discussed, Frederic Taylor was the father of Scientific Management Theory. Other major contributors to scientific theory or management include:

  • Henry L. Gantt (1861–1919) – Gantt was an industrial and mechanical engineer who focused on project efficiency. He developed a series of charts that have become important tools in management practice. He linked manager performance and benefits to the ability to effectively train employees to be more productive. He also believed that businesses have a social obligation to improvise the welfare of the society in which it operates.
  • Carl G. Barth (1860–1939) – Barth was an engineer and mathematician. He was an advocated and educator on scientific method. He is best known for improving upon the slide rule for use in industrial operations.
  • Horace K. Hathaway (1878–1944) – Hathaway was perhaps the most successful practitioner of Taylor’s methods. He also contributed greatly to scientific method by writing extensively on the implementation of these methods in various areas of the organization. The topics of his writings include: executive functions, research organization, business development and sales, manager responsibilities, financial statements, budgetary controls, comptroller functions, and internal auditing.
  • Morris L. Cooke (1872–1960) – Cooke was a practitioner of scientific management theory who worked closely with Taylor. He implemented these principles in several government and private industry positions in the areas of residential electricity, labor-management relations, and land and water resource conservation. He wrote a text, “Industrial Management” (1907) that strongly influenced Taylor.
  • Sanford E. Thompson (1867–1949) – Thompson was an academic and practitioner who worked closely with Taylor. He focused specially on efficiency through time studies and tool development. With Taylor, he co-wrote Concrete Costs (1912) which focused on breaking manual labor tasks into comparable time units.
  • Frank B. Gilbreth (1868–1924). F. Gilbreth’s performed early work on on “motion study”. He integrated his working into scientific management study to focus on efficiency and standardization of task performance in organizations – particularly factories.
  • Dr Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878–1972) performed early micro-motion studies. These studies furthered Taylor’s time studies by employing cameras to record micro-movements. L. Gilbreth also devoted herself to the study of individual psychology within the organization.
  • Harrington Emerson (1853–1931) – Emerson was an efficiency engineer and management consultant. He employs a form of the scientific approach to manage that he labeled “Efficiency Management”. While he never worked with Taylor, his principles of efficiency closely matched this of Taylor. He added elements of functional management through the idea of the “line and staff” organization. This model used a staff to advise a single line manager. This manager would then direct the work efforts of line subordinates. He also developed a compensation system that based employee compensation on efficiency percent. Basically, employee efficiency is compensated based upon task completion – either higher or lower than expectations.

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