Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Specialization - Bad and Good

I just finished reading the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (motorcycle mechanic and erstwhile political think-tank Ph.D.) The blurb on the front flap of the book jacket is a reasonably accurate summary of Crawford's intent: "Shop Craft as Soulcraft brings alive an experience that was once quite common but now seems to be receding from society – the experience of making and fixing things with our hands. Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world, a sense of loss, and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing."

As a veteran of many decades of cubicle sitting, I was in sympathy with Crawford's polemics. I especially liked his analysis of Henry Ford's introduction of the assembly line and its effect on his workers and factory work itself (pp. 40-42):

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At the turn of the last century, the manufacture of automobiles was done by craftsmen recruited from bicycle and carriage shops: all-around mechanics who knew what they were doing....

Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of work, it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One, of Ford's biographers [Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford, New York: Rinehart, 1948] wrote, "So great was labor's distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963."

What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out in the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable....

Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed....

Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as "one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made," as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (He also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.)
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To corroborate Crawford's account, I searched the Internet and found an economic study that quoted statistics from S. Slichter in his book Turnover of Factory Labor (New York: Appleton, 1921.) Slichter stated that during 1913, 50448 men were hired to maintain an average labor force of 13623, amounting to a 370% annual turnover. The daily absenteeism rate ran about 10%.

I ran a rough simulation to determine the percentage replacement of this workforce of 13623 by hiring 50448 other workers. The result was that about 97% of the original 13623 workers would be replaced during the year.

Henry Ford was forced to make a bold move to staunch the defection of workers. He doubled the daily wage to $5 in 1914. This proved to be a sufficient bribe, and enough competent workers put aside their disgust and stayed on the assembly line. Turnover plummeted. Ford was on his way to automotive dominance.

As might be expected, the Ford corporate website presents a somewhat rosier account of this critical period in American industry:

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In 1913, to help meet the growing demand for the Model T, Henry Ford turned his attention to improving the manufacturing processes. The business model Ford developed — production on a grand scale, performed by well-paid workers — spread throughout the world and became the manufacturing standard for everything from vacuum sweepers to cars, and more.

The moving assembly line was perhaps Ford Motor Company's single greatest contribution to the automotive manufacturing process. First implemented at the Highland Park plant in Michigan, the new technique allowed individual workers to stay in one place and perform the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles that passed by them.

The moving assembly line proved tremendously efficient, helping the company to far surpass the production levels of its competitors while making its vehicles more affordable.

After the success of the moving assembly line, Henry Ford had another transformative idea: in January 1914, he startled the world by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. The pay increase would also be accompanied by a shorter workday (from nine to eight hours). While this rate didn't automatically apply to every worker, it more than doubled the average autoworker's wage.

While Henry's primary objective was to reduce worker attrition — labor turnover from monotonous assembly line work was high — newspapers from all over the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill.
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This mind-numbing specialization of the assembly line – a worker might be in charge of tightening only nut #89 on each passing automobile – was an early and striking example of the twentieth-century trend to concentrate design under the authority of a small group of experts (expensive workers), who then set up systems and processes for routine implementation by a large group of clerks (inexpensive American workers or very inexpensive workers in foreign countries). This use of specialization and routine may have started with the assembly line, but now also pervades white collar companies. I see many young engineers at work who were educated to be problem solvers, but at work are given only a very limited scope to apply their talent. They become myopic and frustrated, lacking a vision of the big picture, having only the fuzziest idea who the end user is and what the end user actually needs from the complete software product.

I think the main danger is the restriction or dumbing down of one's involvement with work rather than specialization itself. Certain kinds of highly specialized activities can be very meaningful in the context of a cohesive team effort. For example, nothing is more specialized that ringing a handbell in a handbell ensemble. And handbell ringers are typically very happy people. (See for yourself. Go to YouTube and check out any of the ensembles playing the delightful Rondo Passacaglia by Cynthia Dobrinski, a fine composer who is approximately my age. Why can't I meet women like this?)

If I should ever be favored with great wealth, all of my formal banquets will be graced with handbell ringers.

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