A Century of Scientific Management

Did you know Project Management is having a birthday? Well, sort of a birthday. It was 100  years ago, in 1911, that Frederick W. Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management. Early pioneers of project management, such as Henry Gantt, were followers of Dr. Taylor. Now, for historical accuracy, it should be noted that Dartmouth College (1900) and Harvard University (1908) already had dedicated graduate schools of business by the time of Taylor’s publication. However, Taylor was the first to specifically advocate the inclusion of management as a dedicated science worthy of academic inquiry.

This took a lot of courage in 1911. After all, the academy had been established for several thousand years, dating back to the days of Aristotle and Plato, and universities in Europe had been thriving for almost 1,000 years. The general consensus among academicians and scholars was that management was a vocation, not a scientific discipline.

Today, more undergraduate students choose business related majors than any other; and the MBA is the most common graduate degree. The success of business education over the last century is, in many ways, validation for the practical application of Taylor’s management theory. He advocated that strategic actions would generate reliable results. Business school leaders began applying the principles they taught students and enrollments grew dramatically.

Doesn’t that seem to happen in your projects? That is, when you do what you are supposed to do you get the desired result. When there is a disconnect between theory and practice you have trouble. If 100 years of research and practice has taught us anything it is that Taylor was correct: Management is a science.

However, we have learned since Taylor’s original studies that management is a social science. Companies are mini-societies, comprised of people with unique talents and aspirations. A weakness of Taylorism is that the role of the individual within the system is not truly appreciated. Taylor essentially took a negative view of employees. He had what Douglas McGregor, more than 50 years later, would call a Theory X perspective. This is the belief that workers are generally lazy and prefer to do as little as possible. Conversely, Theory Y managers believe that people are motivated and want to get the most of their abilities.

While the importance of nurturing the individual was pointed out by some of Taylor’s contemporaries in the scholarly community as early as 1912, practitioners gravitated towards a Theory X view. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the human resource school thought (i.e. employees are a company’s greatest asset) began to take root. Today, business school professors share research findings that shows Theory X and autocratic management styles do more long-term harm than good. They espouse the value of transformational leadership and  ethical leadership models, yet far too many graduates eventually adopt Theory X attitudes and behaviors. Is this human nature, or a residual effect of early societal acceptance of the scientific management view that employees need to be prodded to perform? Probably a little bit of both.

While scientific management has come a long way in 100 years, it is interesting to ponder how much more successful it could have been if Taylor had emphasized the individual in his system 100 years ago. Essentially, what if Taylor had a Theory Y view of worker potential? How many failed projects could have been saved? How much wealth could have been created? Perhaps the best thing we can learn from Taylor’s work, and the 100 years of research findings since, is that human resources should not be managed like other project resources. Projects will be more successful if you manage resources, but lead people.





1 thought on “A Century of Scientific Management”

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    Terrific post and fascinating history lesson. Hewlett and Packard, when they started their company in 1939, began with Theory Y core values. It is the main reason the company has been so successful for so long. I can’t say that Theory Y is as strong in HP as it was in the early days, but the legacy is still there in the older management folks. Personally, I can’t see leading any other way. It just doesn’t make sense. I have been witness (and personally lived) under both styles, and Y wins every time. Everyone wants to be appreciated for their personal contributions and be treated as people, not ‘resources’. In fact, I’ve never liked it that people fall into the ‘resource’ leg of the project constraint triangle of schedule (time), cost, and resources. Perhaps we need to add a fourth leg to the stool or choose another metaphor.

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