Mechanistic Organizations 439
Photo by: Franz Pfluegl

Nearly one-half century ago, Burns and Stalker noted that mechanistic organizations are often appropriate in stable environments and for routine tasks and technologies. In some ways similar to bureaucratic structures, mechanistic organizations have clear, well-defined, centralized, vertical hierarchies of command, authority, and control. Efficiency and predictability are emphasized through specialization, standardization, and formalization. This results in rigidly defined jobs, technologies, and processes. The term mechanistic suggests that organizational structures, processes, and roles are like a machine in which each part of the organization does what it is designed to do, but little else.

It is easy to confuse mechanistic organizations with bureaucracies due to the considerable overlap between these two concepts. Yet despite the overlaps, a primary difference between mechanistic organizations and bureaucracy is the rationale for utilizing each of these. A goal of bureaucratic structures is to protect lower-level administrative positions from arbitrary actions of owners and higher-level managers. For example, an individual holding the job title of vice-president of production would, in a bureaucracy, be protected from indiscriminant changes in work hours, wages, and responsibilities through formal rules, regulations, and grievance procedures. The goal of the bureaucracy is protection of positions within the organization.

Mechanistic organizations, on the other hand, are utilized to increase efficiency when tasks and technologies are relatively stable. The vice-president of production in a mechanistic organization would employ production processes and techniques that minimize waste and maximize outputs for a given quantity of inputs. The goal of mechanistic structures is efficiency. Thus, the rationale for bureaucracy is protection while the rationale for mechanistic organizations is efficiency. Clearly, the two are not mutually exclusive; an organization could be structured as a bureaucracy and also be mechanistic. On the other hand, many examples of inefficient bureaucracies can quickly come to mind, suggesting that while there is overlap between the concepts, there are distinctions as well.

Mechanistic structures are highly formalized, which simply means that nearly all processes and procedures have been administratively authorized. The organization considers processes and procedures out-side these established protocols as variances that must be brought under control. Such formalization is driven by efficiency; reduction in variance increases predictability, and increases in predictability allow for improvements in efficiency. Examples pertinent to product or service distribution include the processes a store clerk uses when presented with a customer's credit card or how returns of products by customers are to be handled. Examples pertinent to product or service production and assembly include how a book publisher manages the workflow from completed manuscripts to final bookbinding and how Dell Computer manages assembly of made-to-order personal computers. Decision making is largely concerned with application of the appropriate predetermined rule, policy, procedure, or criteria.

Environmental and technological stability allow work to be clearly defined and differentiated. The work of the organization is divided into specific, precise tasks. Created from one or more such specific tasks, specialized job positions rigidly define skills needed, task methodology and procedures to be used, and specific responsibilities and authority. In effect, lower-level managers and other employees simply follow procedures, and while this may have the side effect of stifling creativity, it also increases efficiency of established processes. In stable environments, however, stifling creativity may be worth the improvements in efficiency. Few customers, for instance, would want a McDonald's employee to use creativity in preparing their hamburger. Instead, the repetitiveness and stability of the procedures needed to cook a hamburger are more efficient when the employee follows established procedures and customers can trust that each hamburger they purchase will taste the same.

However, specialized tasks are repetitive and can sometimes be boring. For example, at a Sam's Club store, one person stands at the door to perform the single task of marking customer receipts. Because employees often work separately with little interaction, it is often hard for them to see how one's small, specialized task relates to overall organizational objectives. Also, the work of mechanistic organizations tends to be impersonal. Jobs are designed around the task rather than the individual. Personnel selection, assignment, and promotion are based on the possession of skills required for specific tasks. Other people, like interchangeable parts of a machine, can replace people in a position.

Specialization carries throughout the organization. Positions are grouped together into specialized work units and, ultimately, into specialized functional departments such as production, marketing, or finance. Each organizational unit has clear and specific responsibilities and objectives. Communication is primarily vertical, with more emphasis on down-ward directives than on upward communication. Thus, such matters as goals, strategies, policies, and procedures are determined by top-level management and communicated downward as instructions and decisions to be implemented.

Upward communication usually involves transmittal of reports and other information for management to consider, usually at the request of management. Coordination is maintained through the chain of command. For example, top-level management is responsible for coordination across functional departments such as integrating marketing sales forecasts with production schedules. Within a department, the department manager is responsible for coordination across department subunits; production managers, for example, coordinate raw inventory requirements with work-in-process inventory.

At least two criticisms are generally made about mechanistic organizations. First, while focusing on task concerns such as efficiency and standardization, mechanistic organizations tend to ignore human needs and dynamics. Second, creativity, and thus innovation, are restricted by the rigidity of standardized and formalization. Thus, the appropriate environment for mechanistic organizations is a stable environment, while rapidly changing environments require more flexibility. Highly mechanized organizations operating in rapidly changing environments run the risk of becoming obsolete as competitors sacrifice maximum efficiency in exchange for flexibility to tackle new environmental conditions.

SEE ALSO: Effectiveness and Efficiency ; Organic Organizations ; Organization Theory ; Organizational Behavior ; Organizational Structure

Durward Hofler

Revised by Scott B. Droege


Burns, T., and G.M. Stalker. The Management of Innovation. London: Tavistock, 1961.

Cardinal, L.B., S.B. Sitkin, and C.P. Long. "Balancing and Rebalancing in the Creation and Evolution of Organizational Control." Organization Science 15, no. 4 (2004): 411–432.

Martin P., and T.C. Heeren. "Product-Line Management in Professional Organizations: An Empirical Test of Competing Theoretical Perspectives." Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 5 (2004): 723–735.

McAdam R., and B. Lafferty. "A Multilevel Case Study Critique of Six Sigma: Statistical Control or Strategic Change?" International Journal of Operations and Production Management 24, no. 5 (2004): 530–549.

Other articles you might like:

Follow Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: