Scientific Management
Arguing for Maximum Profitability
(or Taylorism)

Adam Smith wrote his economics from the stance of what was rationally human, which was an individual striving for the best rewards in a market that functioned like an invisible hand. It is as if the sinfulness of humankind (individual greed) was put to good use. He advocated the division of labour into small units of specialised and therefore most productive work. Max Weber saw bureaucracy as a rational outcome of economic organisation once charisma and tradition did not affect how we did things. For Weber, people in their pigeon hole doing their job and only their job was a depressing outcome. Put the two together and the result is Taylorism. It turns the human being into the simplest narrowest operative, trained to what he or she is best at, and then that is all they ever do, with management functions elsewhere.

Taylor was an engineer by training, employed and promoted in various steelworks. He then chose to be a consultant and promote his views. These were hardly welcomed in practice. Labour disputes at a government arsenal, where his ideas were tried, led to a House of Representatives' Special Committee in 1911 to investigate Taylor's system of shop management. In 1947 Taylor joined his various writings on shop management and related ideas, including his testimony to the Special Committee, into one volume of Scientific Management, as he called his approach.

Taylor promoted maximising prosperity in the short term and long term for both the employer (business) and employee. The employee does not just secure higher wages in a self-chosen task but undergoes training in a reduced down simplified task to the highest point of natural ability. Of course Taylor saw the animosity that happened in reaction to this. Indeed he testified about this. Of course he had to respond in his work on Scientific Management.

He suggested three reasons for animosity:

  • Workers' views that an increase in output results in unemployment
  • Systems of management which lead to workers restricting output to protect interests (systematic soldiering)
  • Habitual work practices that waste effort

These came about either because people had the wrong views or bad systems and practices. Scientific Management just had to explain the truth using investigation, resultant findings and its principles for action. If low costs of output are achieved coupled with high wages then there is good management to that extent, but if it is the other way around then there is bad management to the extent of inefficiency.

Scientific means detailed and precise. He demonstrated how by referring to the science of shovelling: the optimum load that a first class person can handle each time, the correct size of shovel for it (and its materials), each worker told which shovel to use, and an incentive scheme for the first class person to earn high wages for high production.

Management tasks too should be separated out, with every manager doing the one task to which he or she is suited. A factory supervisor should become several: a cost clerk, a time clerk, an inspector, a repair boss, a shop disciplinarian, with each person specialising. This is functional management. After all, teachers in schools teach their own subjects and do so better than one teaching everything (his example).

Another Taylorism is the exception principle. This is about management reports in the form of comparative summaries that describe only the good and bad exceptions to past standards or averages.

Taylor had four great underlying principles of management:

The development of a true science of work

One needs to find out what is a good day's work and what is expected of a worker, otherwise there is inadequacy and confusion. After scientific investigation the business can produce a 'large daily task' for a suitable worker under optimum conditions. Clearly this person can receive higher pay than those in 'unscientific' businesses. The payment level would depend on achieving this output.
The scientific selection and progressive development of the worker

First of all the right person has to be selected via scientific recruitment procedures for physical and intellectual qualities. Management should offer opportunities for advancement for each worker to do 'the highest, most interesting and most profitable class of work'. For this each person would be trained systematically. Taylor thought everyone could be a first class person at some job.
Combining the science of work and scientifically selected and trained people

Workers are generally very willing to learn how to do a good job for a high rate of pay. Management seem inadequate and compacent. However, once they pull their fingers out, there is the 'mental revolution' in management.
The constant and intimate co-operation of management and workers

Managers must manage, and they should do it all right down to supervision. This is their speciality. Everything a worker does follows what management has directed. Managers demonstrate that their decisions are rational and for the best. The worker should obviously co-operate with systematic non-arbitrary management (that seeks the best). It follows that there are no reasons for industrial disputes as all takes place on rational principles and the scientific application of work and management.

A complaint is that Taylor's system has never been carried through to its end. When an incentive scheme is given a limit, workers still focus on how much of the surplus goes to the management and how much goes to them. If management had more courage, and workers' earnings could be unlimited, then workers and management would all focus on the size of the surplus. There would be the mental revolution at the core of Taylor's scheme.

Nevertheless, even if true in most cases, all this supposes that there is nothing else that matters in life. How much time should the worker spend doing the one thing over and over again. Should he or she spend longer hours there maximising output and earnings until the marginal rate of return equals the marginal cost of that one extra shovelful: but what for? Perhaps by doing so much so well, less time could be spent there, but this requires more recruitment and training and is less efficient. This is not a shallow point, compulsory working hours are limited in law not for reasons of efficiency but humanity, that there is more to life than paid work. So the critics ask, why not make working life more worthwhile in and of itself? Why not make working life more like life?

In any case, much work is less about doing tiny operations over and over again. As one becomes trained, other opportunities open. The person who could shovel well can do more and otherwise, otherwise where would people who can train others come from? Where do managers come from (they are not selected, scientifically or otherwise, without working knowledge and even some experience). People acquire new skills and do more; they have a portfolio. Work is thus a complex set of tasks, and of meetings.

Recruitment is never so certain: it is an approximation not a science. Work is not so rational. There is not ever increasing linear efficiency. Work should not be found to match the individual, but to stretch the individual to help each one grow and gain a sense of achievement of doing something not possible before. Also Managers will never be able to demonstrate that they are at their best so that workers will see the light and co-operate. Rather, there are always several options and possibilities for managing and output, and plenty of room for discussion. If workers becomes specialists (in many related tasks, however) then their expertise should run into processes of management. Managers themselves are not experts in the work, and so it is at this point, if not all the others mentioned, that the economic efficiency of this bureaucratic/ Adam Smith system breaks down. Systems always contain their own contraditions which undermine linear efficiency, and this is why, for the quality of work and the quality of life, and for a real sense of mind achievement, work, at its best, should be about negotiation, variety and time well spent.

Everyone has insight and everyone has a voice.


Pugh, D. S., Hickson, D. J., Hinings, C. R. (eds.) (1971), Writers on Organizations, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 97-101.

Refers to:

Aitken, H. G. J. (1960), Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, Harvard University Press.

Taylor, F. W. (1947), Scientific Management, Harper and Row.


Adrian Worsfold