E1: Show notes

by Dmitrijs Kravcenko

In Episode 1 we discussed F.W. Taylor's 1911 work The Principles of Scientific Management. By all rights this is one of the most important texts in management and organization studies, setting the foundation for what would become the management class and describing, in detail, how to apply systematic measurement techniques to the organizing of individuals in the workplace. 

What is Scientific Management?

Scientific Management is a systematic approach to organization of work and management of people based on the idea that every single task can be isolated, studied, and improved through detailed measurement. Once the most efficient way of performing a task is identified, all employees must be trained to do the work in this one best way in order to increase productivity and reduce waste. While F.W. Taylor did not come up with the term (it was, in fact, Louis Brandeis) he was the one to develop it into a method. This method is outlined in the Principles of Scientific Management.

Why does F.W. Taylor and Scientific Management matter today?

Scientific Management is still the driving force behind much of manufacturing today and more. For instance, the way your mail is delivered is organized thoroughly along the lines drawn by Taylor. Tech support and customer services too! During the podcast we mentioned this and Dmitrijs suggested a book - Post Office by Charles Bukowski as an exposition of how elements of Scientific Management permeate delivery of mail in the United States (as experienced by Bukoswki). The fact remains that as much as we hear of progressive and 'flatter' forms of organizing, a great deal of work is still following the principles formulated by Taylor.

Some key points

  • Taylor proposes Scientific Management as a way to improve both the profits of capitalists and the quality of life of workers. We kept coming back to the point that Taylor's intentions were very noble - to eradicate abuse, reduce working hours, increase salaries (considerably!), improve safety in the workplace, ensure friendly cooperation and training of employees by management, and ensure that people are doing what they are best at to the best of their abilities.
  • The view on human motivation on which the theory of Scientific Management turns is very naive. This is manifested by a dilemma that Taylor poses in the beginning - how is it that when people do sports they strive to be the best they can be and beyond, but when they come to work they slack off? He never resolves this but there is ample indication that he considers this to be a problem caused by 'soldiering' and works hard to disband groups of workers as a result.
  • Pedro noted that one of the ways Taylor approached this (disbanding groups) was to shift employee relations with management from group-to-one to one-to-one. This is significant because it impeded potentially damaging and dangerous collective action and reinforced top-down organizational hierarchy.
  • Taylor introduces the idea that consumers play a role in the production process. This is a big deal because, as Ralph and Pedro mentioned, in the late 19th century consumers were not thought of as a class but Taylor saw that they will, non the less, not tolerate low productivity. What a visionary!
  • Miranda mentioned, and we all discussed repeatedly, the problem posed to Taylor's system by knowledge and the measurement of it. Would he understand the concept of 'knowledge worker'? We are not so sure.
  • We discussed how Taylor is an early pioneer of corporate bureaucracy through his ideas of how to establish management departments for measurement and planning of work.
  • Taylor was, yet again, insightful in proposing that knowledge of work can be acquired through observation and experimentation alone. This was at the time when most skill was acquired through direct apprenticeships.  
  • The Principles of Scientific Management need to be understood as just that - principles. While Taylor wrote his book with manufacturing in mind, the methods by which his principles could be applied to other types of organizations needn't be as mechanistic (a nuance neglected by many of his followers!).

Overall we found this book to be as insightful as it is misrepresented in secondary literature. We would highly recommend reading this relatively short text if you are interested in systematic measurement, scientific management and in many of the key principles and assumptions underlying much of management and organizational structuring today.