The outcome-focus of Taylorism may seem logical, but it can lead to poor results and unintended negativity. Let's dive into what Taylorism is, and whether it has any role in the modern workplace.
At times, it seems team leaders can be split into two camps: those who prioritize efficiency above all else and those who appreciate the importance of their employees’ experiences at work.
The reality is more nuanced, but the fact still remains that some leaders overemphasize the importance of eliminating waste. While reducing wasted resources is a reasonable goal for every business — and one of many reasons resource management is important — prioritizing this over creating a workplace that supports employee wellbeing can result in a whole host of negative consequences, from burnout to social disorder.
Leaders who argue efficiency should always come first likely hold values that align with Taylorism - a school of thought focused on systematically improving business performance by reducing inefficiencies and increasing productivity.
But while this may sound logical, Taylorism can be dangerous when taken to the extreme.
So, what is Taylorism, and is it relevant to modern workplaces? In this article, we’ll explore the principles that make up this popular approach and how you, as a leader, can look beyond this outcome-focused approach and create a better work environment for your team.
Taylorism is a century-old management theory that aims to improve businesses’ operational efficiency by using performance analysis to inform iterative workflow improvements. Developed by Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer, Taylorism was highly influential in the early and mid-20th century, shaping how many businesses set up their mass production processes.
This school of thought is built on four key principles:
Yes, Taylorism is the same as scientific management theory. The name for Taylor’s approach evolved over time, from "shop management" and "process management" to “scientific management" after the latter was popularized by former crusading attorney Louis Brandeis.
While the way we approach management in the workplace has evolved over the years, a lot of the underlying principles that guide modern thinking can be traced back to the work of theorists like Frederick Taylor. Taylor began his career working on the shop floor as a pattern maker and machinist but later gained recognition as one of the first people to take a scientific approach to work management.
While working as a consultant at Bethlehem Steel, an American steel manufacturer, Taylor developed the principles that later came to define scientific management theory. He observed that managers didn’t understand what floor workers did every day, meaning they couldn’t measure their efficiency, make informed decisions on how to improve work processes, or ensure they used proper tools.
He began conducting workplace experiments, timing how long workers took to complete certain tasks using a range of methods with a stopwatch. In doing so, Taylor realized that by determining the fastest, most accurate way to complete a task, businesses could improve their industrial efficiency and that some people worked faster than others. In his eyes, these workers were more valuable to the business.
Taylor published his findings in ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ in 1909, positing that managers could increase productivity (and therefore profit) by optimizing processes, managing their workers more closely, and tying workers’ pay to their output. Taylor believed that all workers were money-motivated and recommended that, instead of offering workers a flat rate per day, businesses should pay workers based on their output.
Despite being highly influential in the manufacturing industry and on the assembly line until the late 20th century, Taylorism is generally considered to be outdated nowadays. Its principles have received a lot of criticism in recent years, mainly for how they dehumanize workers and fail to consider individual well-being.
While the we agree that Taylorism is outdated, we can’t ignore that Taylor’s scientific management approach did deliver significant results. (We’ll talk more about how you can strike a better balance later.)
At Bethlehem Steel, Taylor’s workplace experiments saw the cost of loading pig iron onto rail cars falling from 8 cents per tonne to 4.8 cents. He also patented seven inventions, each designed to reduce inefficiencies. One example is his lightweight shovel designs; these optimized tools allowed workers to shovel consistently for several hours while nearly quadrupling their productivity.
Taylor’s ideas had a widespread impact on the business world, which is still visible today. Scientific management principles continue to influence productivity strategies in areas preoccupied with efficiency, such as manufacturing processes, mass production, and mechanical engineering.
While supporters of Taylorism do exist, there are plenty more detractors. Let’s break down some of the most common criticisms of Taylorism.
One of the most popular criticisms of Taylorism and other scientific management approaches is that they lack humanity. Taylor’s engineering education and mindset meant he saw workers as tools that businesses could use to generate profit first and human beings second. By assuming all workers were motivated solely by money, Taylor also overlooked the idea that people could get personal satisfaction from their work.
Plus, by dividing the workforce into workers who ‘do’ and business managers who ‘think,’ Taylor stripped the former of the autonomy to make their own decisions about how they approached their tasks. Allowing workers to make their own decisions with the support of their managers is a key component of the leadership versus management debate, with this autonomy empowering and motivating employees.
It’s ironic that a methodology built on innovation should actively discourage workers from experimenting themselves. By expecting all workers to approach tasks uniformly as dictated by management, businesses miss out on the potential for innovation that comes with autonomous working practices. As workers don’t have the freedom to experiment, there’s no opportunity for them to discover better ways to do things.
One major failing of Taylorism is that it fails to understand what actually motivates workers. While making a living is a key reason people go to work, money is just one part of a much richer tapestry of needs and desires.
Many workers are highly motivated by the desire to reach goals through their own skill and merit, and employee satisfaction is positively influenced by the offer of flexibility in the workplace and healthy relationships between managers and their subordinates.
By reducing workers to simple machines that repeat the same mundane, repetitive tasks as dictated by micromanagers, businesses invite monotony into their workplaces and risk alienating their workforce.
Pure Taylorism expects managers to break each task down into a series of tiny steps before optimizing each component. That leaves no room for managers and employees to work together to improve operational efficiency based on personal working styles and skill sets.
For example, at Runn, we see everyone as an invaluable part of the whole rather than as interchangeable cogs in a machine. We show we respect each employee’s personal autonomy by making sure to consider everyone’s individual needs and expectations when devising each work process and assigning tasks. That means using modern methodologies that maximize productivity and satisfaction across the company by holistically reviewing systems and processes.
There have been rumblings recently of a resurgence of Taylorist thinking. For modern workers who value their autonomy, this would be most unwelcome.
While Taylor’s ideas can deliver huge financial benefits for employers, this will always be at the cost of employee well-being. As we’ve seen, Taylorism’s principles prioritize economic efficiency above all else, which can harm workers’ physical and mental health.
Some aspects of Taylorism remain relevant to the modern workplace, such as implementing standard operating procedures to improve resource efficiency. Performance reviews, quality metrics, and sales targets are all relevant modern concepts derived from Taylor’s ideas; however, acknowledging that some aspects of scientific management are valuable does not mean that all of Taylor’s ideas are applicable in today’s working world — nor are they applicable to all types of work.
For example, Taylor’s principles are better aligned with jobs organized around measurable tasks, such as engineering, software development, or manufacturing jobs, than knowledge and creative work, which are challenging to measure. After all, asking how long it takes a designer to dream up a concept or how many steps a literary critic will take to publish a theory is a bit like asking how long a piece of string is. These are not tasks that can be scientifically evaluated and iteratively optimized.
Instead, modern workplaces benefit from modern, holistic approaches. That means finding an alternative management theory that balances the importance of improving efficiency with creating a psychologically safe workplace that supports individual employees’ working styles and needs.
While Taylorism may be outdated at best and dangerous at worst, there are many alternative management theories you may want to consider when reviewing your company’s organizational design. Let’s explore the advantages offered by six alternative work practice theories.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make sure your department and its processes are working efficiently, but this should never be at the expense of your employees’ well-being.
Designed for the modern workforce using scientific methods, Runn's resource management system allows you to make data-informed decisions that improve resource allocation and processes while promoting human factors like autonomy, empowerment, flexibility, and innovation. With Runn, you’ll be on your way to improving productivity AND employee morale in no time. And what's more, you can try out it for free ➡️
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