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Health and wellbeing, Work and occupational

The return of 'Taylorism'?

Joe Postings on ‘scientific management’, then and now.

09 January 2023

Frederick Winslow Taylor, American inventor and engineer, was born on 20 March 1856 in Philadelphia. He is widely regarded as the founder of ‘scientific management’ – in its time, considered revolutionary for the way it measures, records and refines the elementary processes involved in many manual labour tasks. Broadly speaking, ‘Taylorism’ principles guide a way of working designed to improve organisational efficiency. It’s a scientific approach to each person’s work, as well as to the selection and development of an organisation's workers. Workers are required to have more clearly defined roles, cooperate more effectively, and accept clearly defined levels of hierarchy within the organisation. 

Through these principles, Taylor famously managed to increase productivity by 380 per cent during one of his appointments as a management consultant (Jenks, 1960; Mullins, 2011). Getting down to the detail of the size of a shovel and the optimum amount of coal it could carry, he achieved significant productivity increases with furnace workers. 

Over the years, many followers have subscribed to Taylor’s theory on scientific management, and gone to achieve their own ground-breaking workplace efficiencies. However, support for his ideas – continuing through to the modern day – is far from universal.

The rise of scientific management

The benefits of the scientific management approach looked to be numerous at first glance. From the organisation’s point of view, benefits were obvious; in just one example, Taylor’s work at Bethlehem Steel resulted in the cost of loading pig iron on to railcars being reduced from 8 cents per tonne to 4.8 cents (Nelson, 1977). He was said to have patented at least seven different inventions between 1880-1915 in pursuit of further efficiencies (Nelson, 1974). And now that pay was linked to performance, workers were seeing opportunities to increase their earnings by up to 60 per cent (Jenks, 1960; Witzel, 2005). 

Industry embraced scientific management principles, with considerable economic impact. Between the year 1700 and 1900 the UK Gross Domestic Product per capita went from £1.7k to £4.9k, representing an increase of 288 per cent, and then from 1900 to 2015 it went from £4.9k to £29k, representing an increase of nearly 600 per cent (ourworldindata.org, 2022).

But not all subscribed to Taylor’s methods. Shortly before his death in 1915, there were public criticisms of his approach, particularly relating to the concept of time study – the scientific measurement of the time it took for a worker to complete each individual elementary action involved in their job. This resulted in strike action at a company called Watertown Arsenal, and a review of scientific management in a meeting of the House of Representatives Committee (Nelson, 1974). Henry Ford, often cited as someone with whom Taylor shared a vision on productivity and labour relations, in reality had a different approach, captured by Vincent Curcio in his 2013 book: ‘Ford’s assembly wasn’t the same thing. Under Taylor, one studied an operation to see how it could be done better. Under Ford, one studied whether or not it should be done at all.’ Ford was also openly opposed to the idea of paying workers different rates for doing the same job.

The challenges to Taylorism came from the fact that there was often a disparity between the increase in salary and the increase in productivity demanded of the workers. It did not go unnoticed by the workers that the share of the benefits of this new way of working was being unequally enjoyed between them and the executives of their employers, resulting in dissent amongst the lower ranks of the company. Even then, in some instances organisations were using the piece rate system of pay to drive wages down by setting productivity targets which if met would result in a lower amount being earned by the workers (Witzel, 2005). This caused a relatively widespread rejection, with many seeing scientific management as a model that was vulnerable to abuse. This was particularly the case in European countries, with cultural differences cited between the US-based originators of the theory and their European counterparts. 

The birth of the human relations approach

By the 1930’s not only had the practical application of scientific management in the workplace been reduced, but there was also a withdrawal of interest in the subject in academic institutions too (Witzel, 2005). A near-complete diversion away from the transactional style adopted within the scientific management approach could be seen emerging just before the 1930’s during the ‘Great Depression’. 

The ‘human relations approach’, as it became known, posited that humans, whilst members of an organisation who were there to do a job, also had social needs and were an intricate part of a social group within any company. Supporters of the human relations approach pointed out that workers often went to work for several reasons over and above the monetary reward that they might receive for doing it (L. j Mullins, 2014).

These theories then precipitated an even greater exploration of human motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model, and the work of Herzberg and McGregor, identified concepts around hygiene and growth factors of motivation (L. j Mullins, 2014) which offered even greater psychological insight into the humanistic perspective of management practice and labour relations theory.

The last 80 years has seen a steady progression of interest in work motivation theory, augmented by inventive ideas about how to reward performance within the workplace. Examples of this may be observed in the emergence of the concept of ‘total reward’ (Sandra O’Neal, 1998, cited in Armstrong, 2015), which looks in detail at the role of non-financial rewards in an organisations reward strategy. Research has suggested that without senior stakeholder investment, these initiatives have the potential to fall down (Armstrong, 2015). A good example of such investment in a total reward strategy can be found with the well-known high-street retailer Timpson. They have created the concept of ‘upside-down management’, which in their words works because ‘Great leaders don't issue orders they manage by helping team members do a great job’ (Timpson, 2022). Timpson’s most recent accounts state that they paid a total of £170,000 out to some of their employees to give them ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ to make their dreams come true, by doing things such as renovating employee's properties for them. This approach feels some distance removed from Taylor’s theory of scientific management.

Taylorism’s sinister persistence

Yet the vast majority of organisations fall way short of the example being set by Timpson. There’s no lack of initiatives set up ostensibly to improve labour relations, enhance employee wellbeing and make working conditions for workers better than in times gone by. But such initiatives are primarily about achieving greater levels of productivity and output by workers who are subjected to them (Fulmer & Li, 2021): a smokescreen for ‘wellbeing in the workplace’ endeavours. The proliferation of ‘interest’ in employee wellbeing simply does not stack up against statistics that show stress, anxiety and depression accounted for the biggest number of days taken off work last year (Health and Safety Executive, 2022). Hidden away behind carefully thought-out ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ policies, has there really been enough occupational psychology research into this growing and serious issue? 

This is of far more than historical interest. Although its popularity waned towards the middle of the last century, some might argue Taylorism never really disappeared at all. In certain industries, scientific management principles appear to have persisted. Examples of this can be seen in what George Ritzer calls McDonaldization, centring on the de-skilling of job roles; or in Elon Musk’s handling of his recent Twitter acquisition, moving from apparent past efforts to introduce a transactional leadership approach to something more based on only retaining his ‘most talented’ workers.

What makes Taylorist principles so persistent? Who benefits from them the most? Curiously, when Taylor first introduced the idea of scientific management it was advertised very much as a way of working which would benefit the employees in equal measure to the employers. Yet repeatedly since then, it has been apparent that the theory did not align with the reality for most employees. Some fairly impressive performance statistics tendto emerge – after all, this is a methodology specifically focused on maximising productivity and removing as much waste within a business as possible – and so it seems hardly surprising that business leaders rediscover a faith in Taylorism.

However, I write at a time where the association between wellbeing and profit is to the fore. The UK is experiencing a wave of industrial action by employees dissatisfied about various aspects of pay and working conditions. This in turn leaves employers facing financial difficulties, with some companies such as Royal Mail stating that thousands of staff could be made redundant due to the severe disruption to their ability to trade, and the subsequence loss of significant clients and revenue (Thompson & Czechowski, 2022).  And these are unusual times: following a raft of changes to the way employees are being asked to work due to the pandemic, and now additional challenges from economic pressures, more than ever we need to contribute to a nuanced discussion on the importance of wellbeing at work. In our capitalist society, do efficiencies and profit continue to trump wellbeing? Or do the best employers manage to balance those books?  

A call to arms for occupational psychologists

If there is a lack of understanding about the value of motivation to productivity and performance, then occupational psychology would represent a logical starting point. The challenge will be gaining access to the right mouths and ears, for research and practice. We must avoid preaching to the converted, or falling into the trap of reinforcing outdated forms of Taylorism. For productivity, we need to nurture our people. 

- Joe Postings is the Founder and Director of JSP Credit Management, after spending nearly 20 years in various credit management roles. He is currently transitioning to a career in occupational psychology following the completion of his MSc in Work and Business Psychology at Aston Business School, and intends to commence QOP Stage 2 through the British Psychological Society this year and eventually become HCPC registered and Chartered with the BPS. His main psychological interests center on motivation and performance in corporate settings.

Key sources

Armstrong, M. (2015). Armstrong’s Handbook of Reward Management Practice : Improving Performance Through Reward: Vol. Fifth edition. Kogan Page.
Curcio, V. (2013). Henry Ford. Oxford University Press. 
Dang, S. (2022, November 4). Twitter says 50% of staff laid off, moves to reassure on content moderation. Reuters.
Jenks, L. H. (1960). Early Phases of the Management Movement. Administrative Science Quarterly, 5(3), 421–447. 
Mullins, L. J. (2011). Approaches to organisation and management. In L. J. Mullins & G. Christy (Eds.), Essentials of organisational behaviour (3rd ed, pp. 41–76). Financial Times Prentice Hall. 
Mullins, L. j. (2014). Essentials of Organisational Behaviour (3rd ed.). Pearson.
Nelson, D. (1974). Scientific Management, Systematic Management, and Labor, 1880-1915. The Business History Review, 48(4), 479–500. 
Nelson, D. (1977). Taylorism and the Workers at Bethlehem Steel, 1898-1901. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 101(4), 487–505. 
ourworldindata.org. (2022, November 29). Economic Growth. Https://Ourworldindata.Org/Grapher/Total-GDP-in-the-Uk-since-1270.
Ritzer, G. (2002). McDonaldization: The Reader (xii). Thousand Oaks.
Thompson, S., & Czechowski, A. (2022, December 12). Royal Mail redundancies: How to conduct a fair process. Personnel Today.
Timpson. (2022). Upside Down Management - Timpson Group
Witzel, M. (2005). Where scientific management went awry: Taylorism laid the foundations for science-based management more than 100 years ago. But early implementations led to worker resistance and distortions that have never quite gone away. European Business Forum, 21, 89.