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Thoughts on Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford

2009-12-31

I received Shop Class as Soulcraft as a gift, probably because I’m an avid scooterist and the author is a motorcycle mechanic. Imagine my surprise when I realized this book wasn’t about motorcycles at all, but about business. In fact, I would say it’s an essential item for any business leader’s bookshelf, and a pretty important item for rank-and-file employees.

Crawford (or “Dr. Crawford”, since he has a PhD in political philosophy) pitches the book as a defense of mechanical labor — the work of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. Beyond that, it is a scholarly and wide-ranging treatise on the nature of human labor: why do we work? What do we gain from it? How is modern employment structured? How and why are we motivated to work? How does management keep us working? How have corporate governance and the economy developed to build the modern labor force?

These are wide-ranging questions, which Crawford lays out in the first section of the book. His essential thesis is that industrial society has broken down the process of labor into pieces, pieces that can be documented and simplified. The motivation to do this is to eliminate expert knowledge, and render employees into a fungible, globally efficient resource.  In manufacturing, this process started with machine automation and culminated in the assembly line. Crawford recounts that Henry Ford’s early assembly lines had to hire 900 people just to retain 100. The applicants were blacksmiths, sheet metal workers and carpenters looking for steady work, but they found the task of assembly-line work so execrable that only a few would stay.

This trend continues to the modern day. Modern “knowledge workers” see their jobs broken down into pieces, then the pieces are analyzed, scripted and outsourced to non-skilled workers who work entirely from a script. Outsourcing of human resources, accounting, payroll are just a few examples. Crawford proposes that so-called “creative trades” are next on the chopping block, as creative jobs like computer programming, graphic design, and others are broken down to their fundamental building blocks, then outsourced to armies of minimally-skilled workers around the planet. If you don’t believe this can happen, go have a look at a site like Photoshop Disasters, then ask yourself if consumers will know or care who develops their creative work.

A particularly good example of this trend is the development of banking. A century ago, bankers were important members of the community. Their decision to loan money or offer investment services was not merely based on a formula, but on their keen observation of people, property, and the local economy. They operated in a constantly changing landscape of risk, and only synthesis of many factors could inform their decisions to offer credit.

Yet, in the 21st century, we find that banking has been disassembled into its constituent pieces. A marketing company develops the leads, a mortgage broker finds the deal, a loan officer closes the deal, a servicing company handles the payments, the bank sells the paper to an investment firm, which securitizes the loan into tiny pieces and re-sells the investment to hundreds of downstream purchasers. Almost nobody is local, and the borrower is just an account, their identity barely known to the processes and procedures that make the loan happen. In fact, the system discourages that knowledge — anything that might derail the deal.

Well, we’ve seen the result of that disaster.  With the local banker’s knowledge of property, people and economy eliminated, the system has been unable to properly quantify risk, with the result that something like 30% of the money invested in mortgage securities has disappeared. Now the system is poised to go the other way, with overly conservative formulae denying credit to people that would be deemed safe risks by a local expert. Now that the expertise and adaptability of the banker has become a process, it is clear that errors in the process will be magnified across the entire system.

It’s surprising how easily we have become conditioned to see standardized, formulaic handling of work tasks as normal, or even better, than local expertise. As Crawford points out, in the eternal quest for low cost, the assembly line provides more labor for less money. But it doesn’t provide more quality in less time.

Crawford proposes that the mechanical trades — building, plumbing, mechanics — are the best avenue for people who want to actually accomplish whole tasks, without large amounts of antecedent education and without the threat of their jobs being torn down, “stupidified” as Crawford might say, into tiny pieces. As a side note, Crawford admits that most of his experience is with male-dominated industries, but concedes that female-dominated tasks like gardening and nursing enjoy similar rewards and protection. Essentially, you’re looking for a combination of locality (the requirement that work be done in a specific location) and embedded expertise that can only be learned through experience.

Crawford backs up his claims with personal, and often hilarious, anecdotes from his own life. Unlike many of us, he has lived as a rank-and-file laborer, a mechanic, a “knowledge worker”, a leader (of a DC think tank) and an academic. This history gives him a unique perspective on labor.

Crawford claims that he offers no formula for job satisfaction, yet there is a message here, and a powerful one for managers and leaders that want to fully engage their employees.  It’s clear that rewarding labor brings more responsibility, more autonomy, and greater opportunities to see the final results of one’s work. Essentially, if we want to have the best employees doing the best work, we need to resist the urge to break down the labor process quite so much, and give employees more opportunities to see the whole product. I was reading an HBR article on this very issue, pointing out that the way to groom new leaders and innovators was to give them an opportunity to work across the enterprise. In fact, I’d say that’s the way to improve almost any employee’s motivation; there are awfully few employees who really want to keep their heads down on a single task for their entire career.

Crawford certainly accomplishes his task of defending the mechanical arts, and I admit this is one of the few nonfiction books that I couldn’t put down.

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