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More Paint by Numbers

Entry 2086, on 2020-11-03 at 12:48:45 (Rating 4, Comments)

There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the modern workplace. Most workers are not happy with their work lives, and it isn't usually because they feel over-worked or under-paid, although those are also significant factors. But the main reason people give for dissatisfaction with their working lives is lack of control and the non-existence of any appreciation of their value.

Those are the findings from several recent reports I have seen anyway, and they are backed up in a book I am currently "reading" (more accurately, listening to as an audiobook) called "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work" by Matthew Crawford (a writer and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, who majored in physics as an undergraduate, then switched to political philosophy, and is also a motorcycle mechanic - a very relevant point in his writing).

He points out how autonomy has been removed from many jobs as experience and skill has become undervalued because modern management dogma increasingly values the ability to follow simple rules imposed from further up the hierarchy.

Of course, many managers say they value individual skill, the ability to problem solve, and self sufficiency, but that is usually a lie. I'm sure there are companies and other organisations where those qualities really are valued, but they are either the exception amongst large organisations, or they might be smaller companies where modern management trends haven't taken hold to a significant extent.

As well as the reports (usually based on real academic research) and the book I named above, there are numerous anecdotal examples of this phenomenon. My friend Fred (not his real name, but who works in a large organisation in a similar role to me) has recently described an almost exact instantiation of this underlying precept.

Prior to that change, people in that organisation (which I obviously can't name here) largely worked independently using their "institutional knowledge", experience, and individual skills to perform their jobs at a consistently efficient level. Obviously, there were some exceptions where people didn't have a relevant skill set or an organisational predisposition and that meant they fell short of the highest standards, but generally things worked quite well - at least according to Fred.

Since then these same people, plus many new individuals who have been hired to replace the significant number who left, have been deployed into roles which purportedly achieve the same results but through a very different process.

It's difficult to specify exactly what the underlying form is that this change has taken, but Fred refers to it as "paint by numbers". You might be familiar with the craft kits which can be bought where the "artist" can create a work of art by painting areas with the correct colour specified by a number. That's paint by numbers, and the analogy with work practices should be obvious.

So, in the past where workers (artists) could utilise their own processes (painting techniques) to solve a particular, unique problem (paint a distinctive subject), now they simply repeat a pre-specified process (paint by numbers). Remember that this is in an organisation which claims to encourage individual thought and creativity. Fred says it is difficult to tell whether the dishonesty and incompetence of management is due to genuine self-delusion on their part, or whether they have more nefarious motives. Basically, it gets back to the same old question: are they incompetent or evil?

In his book, Crawford describes two underlying philosophies he was forced to engage with in one particular job. These were "dumbing down" and "moral re-education". He was required to do an impossible task (and judging from his description it would be impossible for anyone, not just for him because of any personal inadequacy) and coped through these two mechanisms.

First dumbing down. Doing the job properly would both be too time consuming and against the company's guidelines, so he was forced to not think too much about what he was doing, which resulted in a superficial impression that everything was proceeding well. If he had dug a little bit deeper it would be obvious that his work was sub-standard, and potentially worse than nothing.

Which leads to the second point: moral re-education. The company encouraged the belief that quickly producing material which could be sold at a significant profit was the real aim of his work. The fact that many people would have considered it immoral to sell something which was known to be, at best, deficient was lost amongst the inner workings of the system.

Crawford says he felt "damaged" by the process, where he was occasionally corrected for superficial errors in his writing style, but never for the content which he knew was poor.

Why did the company succeed despite its poor processes? It is hard to say, but it might be that the customers were equally ignorant of the subjects being examined and didn't even notice the poor quality, or (possibly more likely) the service they provided was just part of another "paint by numbers" scam running in their customers' organisations and no one even cared.

Because that is the usual outcome of these processes: no one cares. When people are treated as unimportant cogs in a machine they will start acting that way. And ironically that actually suits the managers who force the system onto everyone else. They don't want people to actually think; they want to do that for them. It's really an "assembly line" mentality which has gradually spread from the more traditional areas, such as Henry Ford's production lines for the Model T.

And the next iteration of this process should be apparent to everyone. That is, when most jobs become mechanical and able to be condensed into a set of relatively simple rules, automating or outsourcing that job is much easier. So the poor wretches doing these thankless and unrewarding jobs won't need to suffer forever, because soon enough they will be "let go" (how ironic that term is) and their job will be done for a fraction of the cost in China or India, or by a computer.

But will the job be done as well? Of course not; at least not as well as they were before the modern management agenda was enacted, and probably not even as well as after. But those new jobs will be done cheaply, and that's the same thing as good, isn't it?

And here's a final point from "Shop Class as Soulcraft" which I think explains a lot. The author compares managers to Soviet bureaucrats. They aren't bad people themselves, at least in most cases. They are just part of a system which is rotten to the core, and the only way to survive in that system is to engage with that process of rot.

It's imperative for any manager who wants to advance, or even survive, in the system to seem like he's on-board and fully committed. Very few really are, and if they had the chance to escape they probably would, but they are really just as restricted as the workers. In fact, their place in life might be even less fulfilling, although there are undoubtedly a significant number who have fooled themselves into thinking that what they do actually matters in a positive way.

Of course, the Soviet system eventually broke down under the weight of its own gross dishonesty and inefficiency, and a similar things will happen to modern management when everyone realises just how ridiculous it really is. The only question is: how much damage will it do first?

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