IE: Key to Prosperity in the 20th Century AND the 21st Century?

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Frederick Winslow Taylor is credited with being the first person to systematically study manual work and in 1911, he published The Principles of Scientific Management which summarized his findings.  In the introduction to his book, Taylor notes that while people can see and feel the waste of material resources, the larger waste of human resources that happens every day through blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient acts is less visible, less tangible, and only vaguely appreciated.

At its core, scientific management has a firm conviction that the true interests of employees and employers are one and the same, that prosperity for employers cannot exist over the long term unless it is accompanied by prosperity for employees and vice versa, and that it is possible to generate high wages for employees and low unit labor costs for employers.  Taylor believed that maximum prosperity could only exist as the result of maximum productivity and that maximum productivity could be achieved by applying the following four principles:

  1. Define work methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee.
  3. Cooperate with employees to insure that work is being done as defined.
  4. Divide work equally between managers and workers.

Prior to Taylor there had been improvements in productivity throughout history that were the result of technological advances but there were few advances in the productivity of the worker.  It was accepted that workers could produce more only by working harder or working longer hours.  In the decade after Taylor first looked at work and studied it, the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing began its unprecedented rise, achieving an increase of fifty-fold by the end of the 20th century – and it was accomplished by working smarter not harder.  According to Peter Drucker (1999), all of the economic and social gains of the 20th century rest on this achievement.

While there have been impressive advances in the productivity of the manual worker, the bigger challenge for the future is to improve the productivity of knowledge workers.  Knowledge workers are rapidly becoming the largest single group in the workforce of every developed country and it is on their productivity that the future prosperity – and indeed the future survival – of developed economies will increasingly depend (Drucker, 1999).

When you look around in today’s world, do you see any examples of human resources being wasted through blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient acts?  Even with all that industrial engineering (scientific management’s successor) has done to improve the productivity of manual workers over the last century, is there any company whose manual workers have reached the upper limit of productivity?  And finally, do you think that industrial engineering can be used to improve the productivity of knowledge workers in this century as much as it did for manual workers in the last century?