Industrial Revolution and Scientific Management


By Patrick AllittEmory University

The Second Industrial Revolution was also the age of scientific management, and the big name in scientific management is Frederick Winslow Taylor. He was the man who invented the idea, or perfected the idea, of time-and-motion studies to increase efficiency. His disciple Frank Gilbreth furthered the studies, just as Elton Mayo did with his famous ‘Hawthorne Experiment’.

shovel in a trench
Frederick Taylor redesigned shovels to make for the optimum efficiency. (Image: Ekaterina Lyadova/Shutterstock)

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Taylor was a man of absolutely dazzling energy and compulsively ingenious. As soon as he looked at a job being done, he started to ask himself how could it be done better.

Already as a young man of 21, he had what we’d call a nervous breakdown. He had to leave his studies and get a simple factory job, but he was so energetic that it wasn’t long before he transformed the way in which work at the factory was done; in a few years, he’d risen to be its chief engineer.

He was very interested in sports, and at one point redesigned the tennis racket. He redesigned the putter in golf. He experimented with growing new strains of grass to improve the quality of the greens on which golf was played. Everything he turned his mind to, he’d start working on improvements.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Management Studies

One of the things Taylor loved to do was to time operations in factories, and test them for their efficiency. He wrote two books based on his experiments—Shop Management in 1910 and Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. These became the bibles of management theory from then on, and he’s one of the honored founders of management studies.

One of his most famous experiments was at the Carnegie Steelworks, where he watched men shoveling coal and iron ore. He redesigned the shovels that they used in such a way that with his shovel, and using his actual way of shoveling, a man was capable of shoveling 47 tons per day instead of the previous 12 tons.

He found the optimum efficiency of motion for the man with the shovel and the right size of shovel. That enabled the Carnegie managers to cut the labor force from 600 to 140, with no loss of output—obviously an enormous economy for them.

From Gilbreth to Therblig

Taylor’s great disciple was Frank Gilbreth who took time-and-motion studies one step further and invented a thing called a therblig; that’s just his own name spelled backwards.

workers in a workshop
Gilbreth observed workers’ movements. (Image: Chippix/Shutterstock)

A therblig is a unit of muscular movement. In other words, Gilbreth looked even more closely at exactly what a person did when he was doing a job.

Does a bricklayer, for example, bend down to the pile of bricks, then stand up, then move over to the wall he’s building, then crouch down, then apply the mortar to the brick in a certain way? Is that the most efficient way of doing it? Gilbreth constantly refined the ways in which the work was actually going to be done. He’s famous for writing an autobiography called Cheaper By the Dozen, which then also became a popular film.

Elton Mayo

Another of the most interesting industrial experiments of this time was called the “Hawthorne experiment” conducted by a Harvard professor named Elton Mayo, and this experiment involved studying the psychological aspects of employees’ welfare.

Mayo was working in the Harvard department of industrial research, and he ran a long study at the Western Electric factory in Chicago, where telephones were put together in the teens and 1920s. The work environment here was comprised of groups of women in workshops assembling telephones.

Hawthorne Experiment

Mayo experimented with a small group of women and increased the lighting in the room to see whether that leads to a rise in productivity. It did. And then he painted the walls a soothing shade of green, played music in the background while the women were assembling these telephones, and made working conditions more comfortable to see if that improves productivity. It did. Every time he made a change.

He began to take the women’s blood pressure; he found out how many hours of sleep they’d had the night before, and each time that one of these new variables was tested, Mayo found that once again, productivity would rise.

Everyone Needs Attention

Because Mayo was a good scientist, he understood that you need a control group.

That is, you need a group where conditions have not been changed, and the mystery was that the control group’s productivity kept going up as well, even though their conditions had not been changed, they were making more of these phones, and doing it better as well.

Then Mayo had this insight to put all their conditions back to the way they were at first, and then see what happens. Productivity rose again, and then Mayo realized what really matters in all this is the fact that he was paying attention to them.

That’s what was making them so eager to please and to do the job so well. He realized what really counts is that we’re paying attention to them as people.

Improving Workplace Conditions

It was on the basis of this insight that companies began to create clinics and to hire psychologists, and to make sure that there were small group interactions going on within the workplace, because as a company’s scale enlarged, the individual worker tended to get lost.

Mayo and his generation of industrial psychologists believed, “We’ve got to give people a sense of identity, a sense of belonging to the company.” This was an insight that has been carried on from then right up to the present, that the factory or the workplace isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s also a social environment, and you can do much to make the social environment more sympathetic.

Common Questions about Scientific Management

Q: What can be considered the bibles of management theory?

Frederick Taylor wrote two books based on his experiments—Shop Management and Principles of Scientific Management. These came to be known as the bibles of management theory.

Q: Who conducted the Hawthorne experiment?

The “Hawthorne experiment” was conducted by a Harvard professor named Elton Mayo, and this experiment involved studying the psychological aspects of employees’ welfare.

Q: How did Frank Gilbreth contribute to the studies of time-and-motion?

Frank Gilbreth took time-and-motion studies one step further when he invented a thing called a therblig; a unit of muscular movement.

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