March 29th, 2016 · 46 comments
The Ford Transformation
The craftsmen hand-building cars at the Ford Motor Company’s Piquette Avenue assembly plant in the first decade of the 20th century were, among other things, impressively productive at their tasks.
Two or three workers would gather around each partially-assembled car, taking parts, checking their fit, adjusting them on a metal lathe as needed, then checking the fit again, and so on. To watch them work would be to watch experts practiced in their movements and efficient in their tool use.
But as we now know, this productivity was irrelevant, as their approach to the work as a whole was sub-optimal.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Henry Ford perfected his assembly line model and combined it with a commitment to producing interchangeable parts.
This new workflow was less natural, required significant capital investment, and introduced many new logistical headaches: but it also unleashed a level of value production that the old method of car construction could never match — no matter how skilled or efficient its practitioners.
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March 22nd, 2016 · 29 comments
A Modest Proposal
Last month, I wrote an intentionally provocative article for the Harvard Business Review’s website. It was titled, “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”
The article starts by conceding that email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. The weed that’s currently strangling knowledge work is instead the workflow enabled and prodded by the presence of this tool.
As I expanded:
Accompanying the rise of this technology was a new, unstructured workflow in which all tasks — be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy — are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.
This workflow, I argued, leads inevitably to a state where constant email checking, during work hours and beyond, become necessary to keep the wheels of progress turning. And this state, in turn, is transforming knowledge workers into exhausted human network routers who are producing at a fraction of their cognitive capacity.
Given the tangled relationship between email and our current approach to work, however, it’s also clear that [a transformation to a better workflow] is almost certainly going to require a radical first step: to eliminate email.
What’s interesting to me about this discussion is less the details of my argument, but instead readers’ reactions.
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March 11th, 2016 · 23 comments
Seneca on the Myth of Free
In Letter 42 of his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Seneca touches on the hidden costs of seemingly “free” pursuits. In doing so, he offers to his correspondent — Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily — a warning that resonates strongly today:
Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.
(– From Letter 42, Paragraph 7 of the Richard Gummere translation)
Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?”
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