The future of talent

Don’t confuse people and machines

Flowstate: Taylorism and scientific management

In 1877, a young man named Frederick W. Taylor took a job as clerk at the Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia. Taylor was soon promoted to foreman at the plant, which manufactured high‑quality armor plating. In this role, he observed that his team produced only about a third of what he thought their output could be if they operated more efficiently.

As Taylor rose through the ranks at Midvale, he developed the tenets of what he came to call “process management.” These included efficiency, the elimination of waste and the standardization of best practices, all designed to transform traditional craft production into modern mass production. He also argued that for efficiency’s sake, knowledge should be transferred from workers into documentation, machines and automated processes.

Taylor became chief engineer at Midvale, but his influence extended far beyond the plant. His management principles became known as “scientific management” or, quite simply, Taylorism. At its peak in the early 20th century, Taylorism was the dominant management philosophy in the Western world.

Although Henry Ford probably developed his mass production techniques independently of Taylor, both tended to think of workers and machines as interchangeable inputs to production. Not surprisingly, workers weren’t always thrilled by their assigned role as cogs in this mechanistic vision of the enterprise.

In a 1915 report to the U.S. Commission on Industrial Workers, economist Robert Hoxie summarized the growing trade union consensus that scientific management threatened workers because it “looks upon the worker as a mere instrument of production and reduces him to a semi‑automatic attachment to the machine or tool.”

Many of Taylor’s critics echoed this line, arguing that workers were human beings, not machines, and should be treated accordingly. The discipline of human relations emerged in the 1930s as a counterpoint to Taylorism. It was inspired by the work of the Australian psychologist and management theorist Elton Mayo, who argued that companies should help workers adapt to modern production by taking emotional and cultural factors into account.

The core ideas of scientific management remain influential today. Frederick Taylor’s ghost smiles every time a management consultant talks about codifying best practices, improving knowledge management or optimizing workflows. At the same time, modern approaches to scientific management tend to incorporate human relations. For example, the Toyota Production System, which inspired the lean manufacturing movement, includes teamwork and “respect for people” as core principles.

The modern discipline of human resources is in many ways a synthesis of Taylorism and human relations. Today’s CHROs use AI and advanced data analytics to optimize recruitment, onboarding and retention processes. At some companies, the CHRO is a chief social engineer who uses behavioral science nudges to maximize labor productivity.

Yet in a world where employees increasingly want meaning and purpose from their work, business leaders can’t treat workers and machines as interchangeable inputs to production. Instead they should use technology to minimize mundane work, so that workers can focus on the creative, strategic activities that create meaning for them and value for companies.