Knowledge Work

An engineering manager whom I worked with twenty-five years ago challenged me one day, “You know, Bruce, if all employees were engineers, you wouldn’t need mistake-proofing.”  At the time, I was too stunned by his comment to even respond.  But happily, the memory provides good fodder for another post.

There persists a notion today in some quarters that persons with college degrees, in particular technical degrees, have cornered the market on smarts – and value.  When, in 1959, Peter Drucker predicted the rise of “knowledge work” and the concurrent demise of manual work, I think he might have inadvertently led American manufacturing down a knowledge worker rat hole, one where manual work, or in fact any kind of work involving production, became burdensome to our great culture.  Drucker’s prophecy may have been self-fulfilling, as American manufacturers raced to find ways to replace manual labor with automation.

In the 1990’s for example, General Motors spent $90 billion (yes billion) on robots, conveyors and computers in a failed attempt to supplant manual work. I wonder how they calculated the ROI.

Around this same time, manufacturer Mazda sarcastically referred to the canonization of the American knowledge worker as the “big brain approach.”  Mazda favored the collaborative thinking of many ‘small’ brains.  (At GBMP we like to refer to this as ‘Everybody, Everyday.’)

US manufacturers have spent the last twenty-five yknowledgeworkears off-shoring their burdensome manual work.  In a perversion of Drucker’s prediction, American manufacturers have largely ignored the “making” part of business, preferring to ‘innovate and incubate.’  This is their definition of knowledge work. Products can be born in the US, but they quickly migrate to other countries and grow up there to be improved by so-called manual workers.  The alluring promise of this kind of knowledge work fits well in to high tech marketing and sales plans like this one, but it obscures the holistic nature of manufacturing.

Lest I be labeled a reactionary technology hater, I’ll assert that I’m actually a bit of geek, a former IT manager.  I’m awed at the potential for information and production automation.  But I have a big problem with the implied opposite to knowledge work.  This was a recurrent theme at last September’s Production in an Innovation Economy (PIE) Conference PIE at MIT.  Speaking at the conference, Harvard Professor of Management Practice in Administration Willy Shih reflected on his work in the 1980’s with a Korean manufacturer:

“Well, I was in Asia where a high executive at a company that I was working with said, OK. You guys in the US, you do the R&D. We’ll do the commercialization. We’ll do the manufacturing. We’ll make all the money.”

Dr. Shih commented to me after his presentation “Thirty years later, American manufacturers still don’t understand how much innovation is occurring in production.  Overseas manufacturers are laughing at us and still making all the money on our good ideas.”

In my world, all work is knowledge work.   How about in yours?  Are you following General Motors’ innovation concept or Mazda’s?   Send me a comment.

O.L.D. 

BTW – There’s still plenty of time to sign up for my free webinar on Tuesday, February 11, from 3:00-3:45 p.m. EST.  The topic is “Tips for Manager Gemba WalksHope you can join me.  Click here to register. 


You can learn about all of GBMP’s public lean training events here  – from benchmarking Plant Tours to Lean Accounting Workshops, Six Sigma Green Belt Certificate programs and more. Hope to see you soon!

3 thoughts on “Knowledge Work

  1. Pingback: The KaiZone Friday Favorites for April 4th, 2014

  2. You are right on the money Bruce. We need to embrace the “many small brains approach” which is our quest at Whirlpool Findlay. The operators on the shop floor are our key to success…the secret sauce…to keeping jobs here in Ohio and the US.

  3. Pingback: The 2014 Mid-Year Leany Awards | The Best of Lean Blogs from The KaiZone Friday Favorites

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