scientific management

The origins of Scientific Management

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9780486147758_p0_v2_s260x420Most people who recognise the term Scientific Management will associate it with Frederick “Speedy” Taylor and its application in the manufacturing industries in the 1880s and 1890s.

However research by historian Caitlin Rosenthal into slavery plantation records from the USA and the West Indies between 1750 and 1860 showed that plantation owners were already applying management techniques before the industrial North.

They used accounting techniques such as depreciation, and standardised efficiency measures relating to both the land and the slaves.

As scientific management requires high levels of management control over employee work practices it’s not surprising that plantation conditions were conducive to such an approach.

There was no labour turnover as slaves couldn’t quit; and plantation owners re-allocated their labour supply as they saw fit.

Thomas Affleck, a Scot, had studied agriculture at the University of Edinburgh before moving to America, getting married and operating several plantations in the South.

His Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book and Sugar Plantation Record and Account Book, became models for other plantation owners. (Click here for further information on these books).

In them he described how to calculate depreciation (which experts previously thought came with the building of the railroads in the late 19c).

Slave-owners also developed a measure called the “prime field hand” . Prime field hands were assigned certain capabilities such as expected daily output.

Workers were measured against this standard and given values such as “half or quarter hand”. These were used as benchmarks to compare productivity.

There may be indirect links between slavery and the Industrial Revolution, and between the plantations and the early cotton mills to which they were tied.

Rosenthal says that one of Taylor’s associates, Henry Gantt, who had worked at Midvale steel and who developed the charts that bore his name, was born on a plantation although there is no evidence he was involved in its management.

The brutal exploitation of people who were slaves was an extreme example of employers treating people as human capital with often absentee owners relying on the metrics to manage their investments.

It seems historians have known about the ledgers and account books from which Rosenthal drew her conclusions for a long time but this has never emerged in the management literature. Perhaps people were too ashamed to draw attention to it.

This seems so long ago now but there is still a school of thought which treats people as human capital which produces economic value.

And when it comes to downsizing or mergers or aggressive takeovers do the accountants with their spreadsheets and the HR people with their performance review data think of employees as human beings?

Some companies are still using scientific management techniques, albeit with modifications


Hierarchical Management had it’s day

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down_the_chain_1600_wht_5908Back in the 1960s when behavioural scientists roamed corporate boardrooms every executive claimed to know about Herzberg’s two-factor theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Even here in the UK where firms like ICI invited Herzberg over and took his and others’ ideas on board, introducing a Weekly Staff Agreement (moving employees from hourly to weekly pay) and similar initiatives.

One idea that came out of this approach to motivating people was the introduction of autonomous working groups in the mid 1970s. In the UK we heard reports of how Swedish companies had adopted these methods in car production and Philips TV makers at Eindhoven (overlooking work by the Tavistock Institute in British coal mines starting over 20 years earlier). 

A lot of water and ideas about managing production have passed under the bridge since then although you could argue that with companies either mechanising or offshoring to reduce production costs Taylorism is still alive and kicking

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently published the results of a 13 year study into a Norwegian company which adopted autonomous work groups and moved away from a hierarchical structure in line with the national and organisational culture of labour empowerment (reported by A Fradera in The Psychologist)

They described a system where different team members took on the spokesperson role for a week at a time. The workforce was initially enthusiastic saying things like ” the flat structure has come to stay” and “.. no more foremen pointing fingers and telling us what to do” .

After 8 years however some problems were identified. The transient role of the spokesperson meant they could skimp on onerous duties or things they thought less important like sharing information. Because the spokesperson was responding to team needs it was more difficult for them to resolve disputes or enforce decisions that were unpopular for individuals but good for the organisation.

They concluded that self-management optimised the comfort of the individuals and the team but possibly to the detriment of the company.

So they introduced a system where different people were responsible for different aspects, a distributed leadership model. The 5-M model had someone looking after staffing (Man), someone looking after Machine and so on. This was an improvement and also meant the M-leaders could get together to decide plant-wide issues in their own area of responsibility.

Unfortunately not every problem falls neatly into one category and sometimes problems were passed backwards and forwards. Concrete and immediate problems were resolved but not those requiring coordination, clearly a challenge to a company that wants to empower the workforce.

The researchers don’t say whether or not the company reverted to a more hierarchical system – perhaps that would have been admitting defeat.

It also raises some interesting questions about whether people can develop their leadership skills when they don’t have continuity (doing it only 1 week in six) and whether everyone is temperamentally suited to undertake a leadership role?

Historical note

9780486147758_p0_v2_s260x420Post WWII manufacturing industry was largely adhering to Scientific Management or “Taylorism“, an economic approach and belief that there was one right way.

People known variously as “Time and Motion experts” and “Work Study or Industrial Engineers” analysed jobs and broke them down into (very) small chunks so that operators on production assembly lines were more easily able to assemble a switch or put wheel nuts on cars (before robots took over).

So Scientific Management both de-skilled workers and led to mechanisation where possible.

Dividing the total assembly time of a product into tasks of a few minutes and of equal duration was sometimes quite a challenge. The work was pretty boring and relentless and conveyor belt breakdowns, often operator induced, provided welcome breaks from the monotony.

In the UK the Tavistock Institute for Social Research had been using a socio-technical approach (combining social, technical, and economic needs in coal mines since the 1950s and were later involved in Quality of Working Life initiatives, a forerunner of the concern about work-life balance. But their work wasn’t widely known.

Following the introduction of new ideas about employee motivation by Herzberg and others ie it wasn’t just the financial incentive (although it appeared to be for car assembly workers whose objective was to earn as much as possible to buy consumer goods (called instrumental motivation) and which was said to have enabled the growth in package holidays – but I digress) many companies tried to make the work more interesting. In some cases they also tried to reverse the de-skilling that had been the hallmark of previous approaches.

Job rotation was one easy way to provide variety and it also up-skilled the operatives. Job enlargement was combining similar jobs together on a permanent basis and thereby increasing the cycle time. Job enrichment was vertical job enlargement which usually meant including some quality/inspection or supervisory element.

And then in the mid-70s we heard that in Sweden at Saab and at the Volvo Kalmar plant, and at Philips in Eindhoven they had gone a whole step further and introduced autonomous working groups. The Kalmar plant was new and small teams worked in assembly bays rather than straight assembly lines. In both the new Volvo plant and the re-organised Saab plant assembly cycle times rose from 2-3 minutes to 20-30 minutes.

Autonomous working groups can include single skill workers or incorporate features of job enlargement and job enrichment by taking responsibility for purchasing, quality control and absence management. There was usually less need for first line supervisors.

Teams were given the facilities to organise the work themselves, within limits. For example, at the Philips plant teams were allowed to decide how they assembled TV sets either in the traditional flow line method or with each person assembling a whole set.

Sweden had a well-educated workforce and companies had high absence rates put down to boredom with the production lines. By the 1980s we were hearing that autonomous working groups had improved job satisfaction and helped to reduce absenteeism but not necessarily improved productivity.

Eventually new methods and approaches came along eg Quality Circles and the use of BPR, and autonomous working groups seemed to fade from the spotlight.