Scientific Management Theory Explained
Last Updated June 28, 2022
What is Scientific Management Theory?
Scientific management theory is a method of improving efficiency in the workforce. As its name implies, this management theory uses scientific methods to assess work processes.
The scientific method consists of three steps: observation, experimentation, and analysis. In science, this could mean observing the effects of a treatment, experimenting with a different treatment, and analyzing the results. Similarly, managers use scientific management theory to observe their workplaces, test different methods of completing tasks, and analyze the effect of the changes.
When properly implemented, scientific management theory improves productivity. It is an evidence-based method that prioritizes efficiency and reliability. Having scientifically rigorous work methods in place creates clear expectations for employees because it establishes a single right way to do things. It also gives managers a unified standard against which to evaluate their employees.
Scientific management theory has grown exponentially since its inception. There are now a variety of management strategies that fall under the umbrella label of scientific management theory. Each of these strategies has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to do your own research into scientific management theory to find the best applications for it in your workplace.
The History of Scientific Management Theory
The history of scientific management theory begins with 20th century mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor. In Taylor’s time, America was on the cusp of industrialization, but management methods had not yet changed to keep up with changes in technology. While working at a steel manufacturing plant, Taylor observed several production problems.
For one thing, there was little specialization of labor or tools. Work shifts were randomly assigned, so inexperienced workers often ended up trying and failing to complete important projects. Tools were crude, and since only a small number of tools were used for every task, they wore out quickly. For another, there was no one single “best” standard for workers to aspire to. Everyone did their job in whatever way they thought worked best, regardless of whether it was effective. Finally, managers were completely disconnected from the workers they supervised. The average manager had no idea how the workers’ tasks were performed, so they were unable to provide suggestions for improvement.
Taylor set out to solve these problems. He designed specialized shovels and other tools. He advocated for workers to be matched to the projects for which they were most naturally gifted. He trained managers in his methods so that they could implement scientific management theory in their own workplaces.
Taylor is credited with revolutionizing productivity in the American workforce. At his own steel plant, the amount of pig iron the workers could transport in a day reportedly tripled once they adopted his methods. His ideas spread rapidly and helped give rise to the Industrial Age. Scientific management is sometimes even referred to as “Taylorism” in his honor.
Taylorism and Classical Management Theory
When people talk about “Taylorism,” they often mean scientific management theory as it existed in the early 20th century. This specific management style is also called classical management theory.
Classical management theory is distinguished by three characteristics: hierarchical structure, specialization, and financial incentives. In a company operating on classical management theory, there is a rigid hierarchy. Business owners are on top, supervisors are in the middle, and regular employees are on the bottom. Everyone has a specialized, small-scale task. Anyone who is especially successful is rewarded with financial benefits.
Classic Taylorism does a good job of addressing the physical needs of workers, but it ignores social needs and creativity. Inflexible hierarchies make it difficult for talented people to rise the ranks of leadership. Specialization is efficient, but it discourages people from experimenting, and therefore prevents the development of new methods. And although good pay incentivizes good behavior, money isn’t the only thing workers care about. Employees also want to feel valued and take pride in their work.
Classical management theory is no longer widely followed, but it still has uses. Since Taylor developed his theory while working in a manufacturing plant, classic Taylorism is well-designed for manufacturers. It also tends to function better in small enterprises where everyone knows each other, and social needs are easy to address.
The Principles of Scientific Management
There are four principles of Taylorism.
- Choose methods based on science: Use the scientific method to determine the most efficient way to complete a task. Focus on increasing productivity and profits.
- Assign workers to tasks based on their natural skillset: Get to know your workers, discover what they’re good at, and place them where their skills will be the most useful.
- Monitor your workers’ performance: Observe what your workers are doing while they are on the clock so that you can quickly address any problems. If some workers are confused or unproductive, it is up to their managers to step in and fix the issue.
- Divide workloads appropriately between workers and managers: Make sure that managers understand how to plan and train workers and that workers understand how to implement those plans.
Goals and Objectives of Scientific Management
The primary goal of scientific management is to increase efficiency. When Taylor began his scientific management experiments, he focused on increasing efficiency by reducing the amount of time needed to perform tasks. This was a good first step, but there’s a lot more to improving efficiency than just decreasing work time. Since Taylor’s time, other innovators have found more ways to increase efficiency, such as implementing automation software.
Another objective of scientific management theory is increasing profits. If everyone is working as efficiently as possible, then they should be able to produce huge amounts of high-quality products. That translates into more sales and bigger profit margins.
Real-World Applications of Scientific Management Theory
Scientific management theory is flexible enough to be applied in just about any industry. Whether you’re designing software or selling real estate, there are certain tasks that need to be done regularly. Identifying those tasks and optimizing them for efficiency is a great way to bring Taylorism into your workplace. Here’s an example.
Imagine your company has a newsletter mailing list. Every time a new person wants to be added to the mailing list, they send an email requesting to be added. An employee then manually adds them to the list.
This is an inefficient, multi-step method of adding newsletter subscribers. Your employee probably doesn’t get any job satisfaction from typing a name into a mailing list. Moreover, the time spent manually adding names is time that could be spent on more pressing projects.
If you were the manager tasked with implementing the principles of scientific management in this company, you might suggest designing a system that automatically adds people to the mailing list as soon as they submit a request. The subscribers get newsletter access sooner and the employee now has more time to concentrate on important assignments.
Applying Scientific Management Techniques
The theory of scientific management is not perfect. Optimizing efficiency while trying to maximize profits may not solve all your workplace problems. Moreover, Taylorism has been criticized as being ineffective for modern businesses. After all, Taylor was working in a pre-industrial era. He could not have foreseen how businesses and management styles would change in the future.
Taylor’s brand of scientific management may not be a perfect fit for contemporary life. However, the scientific management theory could be a starting point for designing your own management style. You also can consider other alternative management styles such as the Great Man Theory of Leadership and the Contingency Theory of Leadership.