Organizations with a mechanistic structure are best characterized by rigid departmentalization, numerous layers of management (particularly middle management), and a relatively high degree of job specialization.
Understanding a mechanistic organizational structure
The mechanistic organizational structure describes any company with divisions between departments, centralized authority, and specialized but independent roles.
The idea behind a mechanistic structure originated from Max Weber, a German sociologist and political economist who was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the industrial revolution started to take hold.
Weber, like many of his counterparts, studied workplaces to come up with solutions that would make them more efficient and productive.
Based on observation of numerous organizations, Weber determined the elements common to each to form a basic idea of the ideal structure. However, it would not be until 1961 that the concept was formally described.
In their book The Management of Innovation, British theorists Tom Burns and George Macpherson Stalker defined a mechanistic organization as one with a significant degree of three dimensions: formalization, centralization, and complexity.
Burns and Stalker’s three dimensions
Let’s take a moment to explain the three dimensions of mechanistic structure in more detail:
- Formalization – procedures, processes, and practices are followed to the letter, and communication sticks to formal channels. Job descriptions clearly delineate roles and responsibilities and low-level employees have little to no contact with those above them.
- Centralization – power is concentrated within senior-level management. Directives flow down a clear chain of command to lower-level managers and subordinates.
- Complexity – mechanistic organizations tend to have more levels of management with numerous middle-level managers. Complexity is also added from member-task specialization.
Advantages and disadvantages of a mechanistic structure
- Stability – the formality of a mechanistic organization means operations remain more or less the same over time. Organizations and employees alike can benefit from processes that are known quantities and deliver consistent results.
- Low task differentiation – since every role, task, and procedure within the company is clearly defined, employees understand what is expected of them from their superiors.
- Efficiency – companies like McDonald’s use aspects of mechanistic structure to maximize efficiency and minimize cost. The fast food company’s highly formalized jobs, clear lines of communication, and detailed job descriptions enable it to produce a uniform product across its thousands of restaurants.
- Rigidity – mechanistic organizations tend to be rigid and inflexible, which makes them unsuited to dynamic industries where flexibility and adaptability are crucial.
- Workload – the centralization of a mechanistic structure means that some senior managers will find themselves involved in the minutiae of day-to-day operations. This can cause them to become overloaded with unnecessary work.
- Lack of creativity – while the formalized structure delivers consistency and proven results, this often comes at the expense of employee motivation. When employees are unable to solve problems creatively and are required to follow the same procedures every day, they may become disengaged from the work.
- Organizations with a mechanistic structure are best characterized by rigid departmentalization, numerous layers of management (particularly middle management), and a relatively high degree of job specialization.
- British theorists Tom Burns and George Macpherson Stalker defined a mechanistic organization as one with a significant degree of three dimensions: formalization, centralization, and complexity.
- Mechanistic organizational structures tend to yield stable organizations where every employee knows what is expected of them. However, their rigidity means they are not suited to dynamic industries, and senior-level managers may find themselves unnecessarily distracted with tasks better delegated to others.
Read Next: Organizational Structure.