2/1/1999 | 4 MINUTE READ


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Adam Smith, the 18th century economist, has had an effect on the way work is done, an effect that undoubtedly transcends what would be expected.


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Adam Smith, the 18th century economist, has had an effect on the way work is done, an effect that undoubtedly transcends what would be expected. Smith noted that there is greater efficiency realized in production operations through the division of labor. In The Wealth of Nations, he gave a simple example of the effects of the division: pin making. He contrasted the situation of an individual performing all of the steps required to make a simple straight pin (drawing the wire, straightening it, cutting it, pointing it, grinding it...) and a setup where there are individuals performing each of the 10 steps. According to Smith, 10 people "could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day." So Smith pointed out that, in effect, each person is responsible for making 4,800 pins per day. "But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day..." It was quite evident that the division of labor was a more efficient way to work, especially if the goal is to mass produce things.

This thinking was brought to even more advanced levels in this century through the work of people including F.W. Taylor and Henry Ford, with the creation of standardized work and the moving assembly line.

While there are certainly efficiencies gained, whether the products being produced are pins or Neons, there is a problem that occurs as a result of this division. Which brings up a point made by a 19th century thinker, Karl Marx. Although Marx has been largely discredited due to the fact that things didn't quite dialectically develop the way he foresaw, one point he made about work is worthy of note.

That is, if you consider those 10 people making the pins, then the person who is doing the initial drawing of wire isn't nearly as connected to the product as someone who is involved in producing the entire pin, efficiencies not withstanding. The closer one gets to the end product, the less alienation there is: "Ah, it's pins we're making!" is better than "Oh, I grind the ends of 48,000 pieces of wire every day." There is a greater risk of the latter person being bored more quickly—which can result in bad quality.

Many companies have addressed this situation in a number of ways. For one thing, there is the approach of having work groups so that people are involved in multiple tasks and have the opportunity to switch from job to job. Another way of helping bring the people closer to the product that they're producing is to actually have displays of the end product within the work area: "So that's what the complete ABS system looks like!"

Oddly enough, I started thinking about all of this stuff while attending one of the many press conferences held at this year's North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Political strategist James Carville also entered the mental fray, with a modified version of his petit-famous observation, "It's the product, Stupid." NAIAS is, of course, all about product. The Detroit Auto Dealers Association has been sponsoring the event since 1907. Clearly, the association's motive can be simply stated as moving iron off the lots and into driveways.

So what does any of this have to do with anything? Simple. I'd like to recommend that if you're a manager, make the opportunity to take your people to next year's NAIAS or to whatever auto show is in your area. I talked with Gary Henson, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president of Manufacturing, at NAIAS. He told me that he was having his staff members come down to the show. "We look at things a little differently than most people do," Henson commented, explaining that they're looking at things like how doors are hung on to vehicles, how hemming is performed, and what the depth of the paint appears to be. The hundreds of thousands of other folks who make their way through Cobo Center during the event are unlikely to notice hinges and the like. "After they see things on competitive vehicles, they can go back to Engineering and say, `Why can't we do that?'" Henson noted.

What may be more important than OEMs having people at shows is for suppliers to have their people go see the vast array of new vehicles. After all, it is a whole lot more meaningful and quite possibly motivating for people to be able to see where the parts or assemblies or systems they produce end up—and for them to be able to get a view at what the competition is doing. They can become more connected with the fruits of their labor rather than distant from it.

The division of labor is certainly a beneficial thing. But it can be improved by assuring that the divisions don't create gaps between the process and the product.

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