Scientific Management: The Pernicious Persistence Of Taylorism

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In the early 1900s, the US was swept up with a drive for improved ‘efficiency’ in every field of endeavour; a drive that was significant enough to earn its own title: the Efficiency Movement. This movement is seen by historians as a part of the wider Progressive Era – the early twentieth-century drive to clean up corruption in politics, break up industrial monopolies and generally to allow the cleansing waters of modernism to flow through the mucky stables of late nineteenth-century American civic life.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the Efficiency Movement – particularly Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about Scientific Management, often referred to as Taylorism – are still lodged in the modern corporation’s subconscious. These industrial-era, managerial behaviours are still affecting corporate behaviour today – in ways that are entirely inappropriate to the knowledge economy.

The Gilded Age

The last decades of the nineteenth century have been known as ‘the Gilded Age’ since Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published A Gilded Age: A Tale Of Today in 1873. The word ‘gilded’ was meant to imply that the era’s outward show of prosperity and opulence hid a great deal of poverty and squalor. This was an epoch in which great corporations were founded and great fortunes were made. Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877) had progressed from sailing a ferryboat in Upper New York Bay to founding a mighty steamship empire, before moving with great prescience into the new railway business and becoming one of the richest Americans of all time. By 1880, John D. Rockefeller had effectively monopolised the US oil industry, refining 90% of the country’s oil at a time when the US was the only oil producer in the world. When the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, sold Carnegie Steel to the Wall Street banker, J.P. Morgan, in 1901, as Morgan set about consolidating the US steel industry, Carnegie’s share of the $480 million sale price was $225 million – something like $6 billion at present values. J. P. Morgan had previously arranged the merger, in 1892, of the great inventor Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric Company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, to form General Electric.

‘From barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation’

The core infrastructure of modern America, and the foundation for its future wealth creation, was built in a few decades during this Second Industrial Revolution, a period generally taken to run from the mid-1880s to the outbreak of the First World War – by which time the internal combustion engine had been developed and Henry Ford and others were beginning to introduce the automobile to the modern world. It was a time of great technological advances, rapid industrialisation and disturbing social upheaval: the mega-rich of the day lived lives of ostentatious splendour, while rural Americans and immigrants flooded into rapidly growing and heavily polluted cities, creating conditions depressingly reminiscent of the overcrowded new townships that sprung up around the first ‘manufactories’ in Britain during the first Industrial Revolution, one hundred years earlier. Political corruption in late nineteenth-century, Gilded Age America was rife.

A visiting French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, is said to have commented at the time that America seemed to be only country in history to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation. Little wonder, then, that the early twentieth century was a period of reform, a Progressive Era in which politics and industry set out to clean up their act.

The birth of Taylorism

Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of Scientific Management and prime mover of the Efficiency Movement, quoted President Theodore Roosevelt in the introduction to his 1911 paper, The Principles of Scientific Management. ‘President Roosevelt in his [1908] address to the Governors at the White House,’ wrote Taylor, ‘prophetically remarked that “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency.”’

The need to conserve of resources and raw materials was only one part of the picture, Taylor argued; what was needed also was to prevent the ‘larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient.’

Taylor’s beguilingly modern, ‘scientific’ approach was to analyse industrial tasks in great detail in order to discern the most efficient, ‘one best way’ of carrying out that task. Workers who were capable of working at the newly discovered peak rate of efficiency should be selected, trained and individually rewarded. The appeal of Scientific Management in the Progressive Era was clear: here was a modern, scientifically-based approach that would drive greater productivity and do away with the old haphazard, undisciplined, inefficient nineteenth-century ways of working.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s whole philosophy was based on the notion that workers were incapable of discerning the ‘science’ of the most efficient way of carrying out their task. He was very blunt about this, arguing that some kinds of worker were ‘too stupid’ to understand the science needed to analyse their own work. Even where some more skilled workers were capable of analysing their own tasks, he argued, this would not be the best use of their time. A new breed of managers and planners was needed to analyse tasks into their component parts and devise the one best way of carrying out the task. Managers would take on what Taylor referred to as ‘the burden’ of analysing and planning the workers’ tasks, freeing them up to carry out their tasks as efficiently as possible.

In an ideal world, wrote Taylor, ‘the work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.’ Sadly, notes Taylor, ‘Human nature is such, however, that many of the workmen, if left to themselves, would pay but little attention to their written instructions.’ Hence the need for constant and detailed supervision of the workforce.

Workers, under Taylorism, had been reduced to pre-programmed automatons, mindlessly following the instructions of a supposedly superior managerial class.

Does that sound at all familiar?

Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas

Our book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas argues that Taylor’s view of the organisation, where workers work and managers do all of the thinking and planning, has proved stubbornly persistent. It has resulted in a large number of unexamined industrial-era behaviors that are entirely unsuited to the knowledge economy. The book identifies a number of sadly all too familiar industrial-era behaviors to do with organisational approaches to control, measurement and – yes – efficiency, but also to do with how organisations communicate with their members, how leadership is perceived and practised and even how the workplace is designed and what its main function is thought to be.

The good news, we argue, is that by identifying these outmoded behaviors and addressing them, little by little and piece by piece, organisations can achieve radical transformation via an aggregation of marginal gains, without the trauma and risk associated with sudden, wholesale change.

This has to be attempted. In fact, we must be successful in this transformation of our organisations. Otherwise, we will continue to wonder why the modern workforce is unhappy, stressed and disengaged, and we will continue to squander the energy and creativity that people bring to work with them every day only to be actively prevented from deploying these great assets by a system of corporate management that has its roots in the early twentieth century.

Modern nations need ideas and human energy. These are plentifully available, as they always have been, but we have to find ways of tapping into them. If we fail, we are in danger of entering another Gilded Age, an age of surface glitter, where a few great men and women make huge advances and reap the rewards of their efforts, but a large proportion of the population are prevented from contributing to the overall success and wealth of the nation. We are in danger of losing our competitive edge, as we rely on the ideas and the energy of a few, while denying the majority the kind of working environment and organisational culture that can release their own innovatory skills, self-motivation and entrepreneurial instincts.

Every nation needs its great men and women – its Vanderbilt’s, Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s and Morgan’s; its Edison’s and its Ford’s – but, in successful nations, the achievements of the few are fuelled by the ideas and energy of the many. One clear part of the solution is to do away, finally, with the pernicious persistence of Taylorism in the workplace and to create a new enabling and empowering working environment fit for the Age of Ideas.

10 Organisational Behaviours Stuck in the Industrial Era

In another post, ‘Creating an Organisational Culture for the Age of Ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organisational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the age of ideas.

The book was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of ten organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviors intended to advance the organisation’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a short description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to give you a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognize these industrial-era organisational behaviors, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviors would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior


Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organisation and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.


Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.


Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few dollars at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.


Organisations know that they need to innovate, but much organisational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.


Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.


People are rarely allowed to organize their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.


Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.


New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organisation reach out and interact, but few organisations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organisation sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

Diversity of opinion

Organisations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organisations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argued that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organisational cultures was one of changing behaviors ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behavior patterns that are doing the most damage to the organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviors – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organisation . . . once the flaw in one behavior is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviors’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations setting out to explore which behaviors they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas. We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviors, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviors, and you energise the culture.

A version of this article first appeared on


Creating Organisational Cultures for the Age of Ideas

Many modern organisations are unthinkingly locked into an organisational culture that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organisation in the twenty-first century.

But times have changed.

In our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, we set out three core ideas.

  • Many organisations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  • There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviours which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organisations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  • Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviours – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organisation, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organisation’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century happily adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the one best way of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself – what was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner.

From this patronising worldview emerged the persistent modern model, in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

Constantly assessing, appraising and judging

When ‘the one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the obvious result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class. This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

The illusion of control

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviours that we identify in the book, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organisational behaviour find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

Little by little, piece by piece

The behaviours that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organisation to organisation; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organisation’s individual culture.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organisation’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organisation’s behaviour little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organisation from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.


A version of this article first appeared in


Rethinking ‘Human Resources’

You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.