Shop Class as Soulcraft

By Andy Wagner:

The New York Times recently published an essay by Matthew Crawford, based on his new book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work“. In his inquiry into the value of work, Crawford takes on Taylorism’s separation of thinking from doing in a way that only a philosophy PhD with his own classic motorcycle repair shop can:

The dichotomy of mental versus manual didn’t arise spontaneously. Rather, the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to separate thinking from doing. Those efforts achieved a good deal of success in ordering our economic life… Yet to call this “success” is deeply perverse, for wherever the separation of thinking from doing has been achieved, it has been responsible for the degradation of work.

He goes on to argue that it is in the crafts and trades that thinking and doing are permitted to exist in their natural state, and work to retain its full dignity. He doesn’t think much of the new “creative class” and includes continuous improvement under that name:

The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokes people for the corporate counterculture… The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.

Freedom to be creative means nothing if a worker, blue or white collar, hasn’t first mastered his trade and mastery itself is not possible without a physical and mental connection. Deming highlighted this in Point 12, “Remove barriers that rob workers of pride in workmanship” and he applied this message to managers as well as the hourly worker.

I think most lean thinkers relate well to what Crawford and Deming have to say in terms of engaging the minds of hourly workers. It’s the first thing that we think of when we say “Respect for People”. It’s Crawford’s critique of the “cubicle class” that strikes much deeper, into the heart of some problems with corporate America:

Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance-oriented. But where there isn’t anything material being produced, objective standards for job performance are hard to come by. What’s a manager to do?

He compares this with the shop floor, where a foreman uses a micrometer to check a workpiece and rule in unambiguous terms whether a worker has done his job correctly or not.

At issue in the contrast between office work and manual trades is the idea of individual responsibility, tied to the presence or absence of objective standards.

The subjective standards to which Crawford refers remind me of Bill Waddell’s ever enjoyable rants against Standard Cost Accounting. What could better epitomize Crawford’s point that managers, out of touch with the objective “doing” of the shop floor, find themselves frustrated by chasing metrics that stray from reality, metrics that they are rarely able to influence in a meaningful way.

And so it began for me: my first week on the floor, one of the more senior union workers took me aside and with one of the most dire serious faces I’ve ever seen said: “Whatever you do with these people, don’t ever lie to them.”

Management doesn’t so much lie, as Crawford points out, as they double talk and hedge to avoid responsibility for things they lack objective ability to control:

When a manager’s success is predicated on the manipulation of language, for the sake of avoiding responsibility, reward and blame come untethered from good faith effort. He may then come to think that those beneath him in the food chain also can’t be held responsible in any but arbitrary ways… It is in this… system of language… that the world of managers resembles that of Soviet bureaucrats, who had to negotiate reality without public recourse to language that could capture it, obliged to use instead language the whole point of which was to cover over reality.

More to the point:

Given the moral maze inhabited by managers, we can understand why those higher in the hierarchy must absent themselves from the details of the production process: such abstraction facilitates non accountability.

Is it any wonder Enron, Fannie, Freddie, and AIG are household names?

In Crawford’s conclusion, he suggests that the most satisfaction comes in work that we understand objectively, with our hands and with a satisfied customer customer close by to help us to appreciate the result. He gets this by helping people to restore old motorcycles, watching their faces when the motor turns over and they drive away smiling. His “gemba” is riding with friends in the Blue Ridge Mountains, feeling what is and isn’t a well tuned suspension. He thrives on the brotherhood of excellence that exists between perfecting their skills and intuition for their craft.

I think his “Soulcraft” piece is off the mark in one respect. He doesn’t think to much of manufacturing, in that he views it as a unredeemed Taylorist institution. It’s not a trade or craft to build a new motorcycle because the screws are not stripped–they always turn, and the castings are not covered in grease or dirt. It’s repetitive, the same every time, or so he perceives it. The lean thinker, however, sees it differently. Our trade–our craft–and our brotherhood of excellence, is the pursuit of continuous improvement of each task, every time, thinking and doing.

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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

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3 Comments on "Shop Class as Soulcraft"

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  1. T. Brown says:

    Crawford does, however, contrast rebuilding an engine to erecting a house. He makes a distinction between
    being the master of an entire 'thing' from the start, as opposed to the task of fixing a preexisting machine. There appears to be a difference in deliberation between any work that requires the cognition of an 'every time,' and those jobs based on attending the quirks that arise from prior usage. But this book is also a social critique of 20th century business models. While lean manufacturing may pursue a state of continuous improvement, it is the framework of mass reproduction that disables workers of exercising judgment, even if they are told otherwise. I think Wagner is correct in questioning how lean manufacturing differs in principle from 'knowledge work', but Crawfords' disgust with team-building may still apply.

  2. Joe Brown says:

    Outstanding post! The lack of interest,understanding and respect for the skilled trades needs to be reversed.

    The #1 method to lead the way out of this recession is manufacturing-driven job-growth. No other sector has the multiplier, manufacturing (aka "skilled trades")does.

    Spot-on with the quote, "Freedom to be creative means nothing if a worker, blue or white collar, hasn't first mastered his trade and mastery itself is not possible without a physical and mental connection"

  3. Andy Wagner says:

    Thanks for the great comments from both of the Browns.
    I perhaps over simplified Crawford's case by leaving out the construction industry, however I still have to stand up for people making a lot of the same thing.
    High volume production does not pre-suppose workers "checking their brain at the door". This is a requirement placed on workers based on flawed assumptions of early 20th Century thinkers.
    The most successful companies are those that realize this and embrace their employee's knowledge as a competitive advantage.

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