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100 years ago was the age of industrialization in the USA. Manufacturing jobs employed many millions of people to make cars, furniture, radios, airplanes, tires, telephones and appliances. These things had long been made by hand, but were now made in mechanized factories with standardized parts and procedures that increased the speed of production and output of goods. In 1929, more than 40,000 men and women worked at the massive Western Electric factory in Cicero, Illinois.  At its height, it was a fully functioning city with its own power plant, fire departments, retail stores and recreation centers. Western Electric manufactured telephone equipment for Western Union, Morse Telegraph, Bell Telephone, AT&T and others. The many electronic devices they made required hundreds of separate assembly and inspection operations. Because they were interested in efficiency and effectiveness, Western Electric was one of the first manufacturers to apply scientific management techniques to production.

Western Electric was interested in the well-being of their employees

Some of this was altruistic, but much of it was part of a practical effort to inspire loyalty, reduce turnover and resist unionization. At the core of the desire for improved productivity were the ideas espoused by people like Frederick Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, collectively referred to as the Scientific Management Movement. Applying the scientific method to management was an entirely new way to study the reality of the workplace in order to make things better for companies, managers and employees. 

As part of the Scientific Management Movement, companies routinely studied the effects of the physical environment on workers

OSHA wouldn’t come along for another 50 years. Companies willing to try the scientific management approach experimented with lighting, temperature, physical layout, and more. Western Electric conducted scientific experiments at their Hawthorne plant that are now the stuff of workplace legend. The experiments were led by scientists who placed anthropologists in work rooms to record everything that happened. The first few days, workers would not talk openly or casually in front of the strangers. Within a few weeks, workers were talking, arguing, playing games, teasing, trading jobs and more. With workplace life now back to normal, the researchers began their experiments.

Experimenters improved the lighting and worker productivity went up

They cleared the workspace floors and aisles of obstructions, and productivity went up. They put workers in new rooms, and productivity went up. So these experiments proved workplace improvements increased productivity, right? Not so fast – remember these were scientists conducting scientific experiments, not people who leaped to conclusions. An experimenter dimmed the lights, which of course would reduce productivity, but  productivity went up instead. Huh? Researchers blocked the aisles with obstructions and productivity went up. What? They made the room too hot and too cold and too noisy and productivity went up. What the heck is going on here?

Puzzled at how productivity could increase when experimenters made conditions worse, anthropologists interviewed the employees

Remember, the interviewers had been sharing the workspace with the employees for a long time, so employees were relaxed and open with them. What interviewers discovered was that for each experiment where conditions were improved, the workers appreciated the changes and felt obligated to work harder because the company was being so nice. When the improvements were removed, workers concluded the company must be in trouble, possibly because of the costs of all this workplace improvement, so they worked even harder to save it.

The lesson: workers changed their behaviors because they were at the center of attention and felt someone cared about them

To this day, the phenomenon is called the Hawthorne Effect. Do not confuse this with the observer effect, where people do things differently when they know they’re being watched. Ask any outside contractor how many times they observed client company employees at first modifying their behavior in the presence of an outsider, but invariably reverting to their true selves within a week or two.

Frederick Taylor was a mechanical engineer who used scientific management principles to improve workplace productivity

It sounds quaint now, but his idea was that companies and workers alike benefit when workers have better working conditions, shorter working hours, and higher wages. Taylor believed that workers should be focused on doing their jobs while managers should be held accountable for optimizing performance.  

Taylor said workers should receive guidance and help from management instead of being driven by them like cattle

Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management was founded on four ideas:

1. Scientifically study each task, where managers are responsible for:

  • Gathering objective data,
  • Conducing experiments, and
  • Standardizing policies and procedures based upon analysis of the outcomes.

2. Scientifically select, train, teach and develop every worker.

  • Skilled teachers should show the worker how the work can best be done, and 
  • Give workers the guidance, help and encouragement they need to develop proficiency.

3. Divide the work and the responsibility. Taylor said management has the responsibility for: 

  • Working side by side with workers, and
  • Dividing work equally between managers and workers, so that managers plan the work and provide the tools workers need to perform the tasks using their know-how.

4. Cooperate with the worker. Taylor said work should be distributed among four sets of employees as follows:

  • One group of employees should be fully engaged in the development of workplace science.
  • A second group of skilled workers should teach employees and help and guide them with their work.
  • A third group should provide workers with all the tools they need to do their jobs and keep them in optimum condition and perfect order.
  • A fourth group should plan the work well in advance and make changes as necessary and based upon worker feedback.
Taylor believed by distributing work between four sets of employees, each worker:
  • Performs the functions they are best suited for.
  • Learns to work harmoniously with many others.
  • Loses none of their originality or personal initiative.
Fundamental changes in attitudes are impossible to hurry

The important caveat that most have forgotten is that Taylor recommended these things should be done gradually. He believed workers should be trained one at a time until they see how the new approach benefits them personally. Taylor felt that once enough workers changed over to the new ways (he said this was between 1/4 and 1/3 of the workers), rapid progress would ensue because so many workers had become believers.

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were engineers who worked with Frederick Taylor until striking out on their own

Frank was a high school graduate and Lillian held a PhD from Berkley. Where Taylor focused on the time it took to perform a task, the Gilbreths were more interested in eliminating wasted motion. The book Cheaper by the Dozen is the story of how they raised 12 kids in a household that applied scientific management principles to making everyday tasks more efficient. It is one of the first adult books I recall reading. Watch the 2003 movie Cheaper by the Dozen if you want, but for a real sense of the times as they were, check out the original film from 1950, complete with period costumes.

Make up your own mind

Scientific management theory has long been considered obsolete, perhaps for good reason and also possibly because companies that sell management advice have newer and shinier things to peddle. If you take a few minutes to brush aside the proprietary terminology and look at what the keys are, you will notice they all still include Taylor’s basics: analysis, efficiency, reduction of waste, application of best practices, and knowledge transfer. Look around and you will find plenty of experts who will tell you Scientific Management costs too much, reduces productivity, demotivates employees, is overly bureaucratic and is the scourge of increasing shareholder value. Just remember that these naysayers are the people who shoved cubicles and open offices down your throat until you quit.

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