Arbitrary Work Design is a Sin against Nature

My guess is that the next 10-20 years are going to see a revolution in work design and productivity–particularly in knowledge work–that will topple the concept of jobs. I’ve written about this before, here, but I was fired up again this morning while glancing at a lovely website, Design Observer, and a recent posting there by Azby Brown, a New Orleans native who has been living in Japan for more than 20 years. (Now that must be a very creative combination of cultures.) Brown in his post talks about the lessons he has learned from master Japanese carpenters, and this passage struck me in particular:

The final conversation was about microclimates. Master Nishioka was describing to me how important it was to match a tree to its structural use in the building, based on where on the hillside it grew. “Valley trees are too wet for most uses, trees at the top of the hill sprout a lot of branches because they don’t have to compete and are very knotty, but trees from the middle slopes compete with others and have long trunks with branches clustered toward their crowns. Those make the best beams, because they’re straight and fairly free of knots.” He went on to describe how trees from the north face differ from those found on the south, and so on.

This is no doubt something that most experienced carpenters know; that the environment trees grow in shapes their function as wood. I’m also familiar with this same type of issue relative to grapes grown for wine. Winemakers increasingly are marketing their better wines not just on vintage, but on the particular hill slope the grapes grew on, for example.

And yet when we match people to jobs, well oftentimes we don’t even try. Job descriptions are created in the general, not in the particular, and although some of this production line approach may be suitable for certain industries, it is not suitable for knowledge work. If mission performance suffers, the usual management response today is to find fault first with the person, not with the job design. We would be more productive and more in balance with nature  if we reversed the response. After all, job design is generalized; the person is not–each of us is the results of a particular path we took in life, none of our trillions of steps can be retraced. It strikes me that if people are indeed our most valuable resource (jargon sigh), then we should care as much as carpenters and winemakers do to take full advantage of their individual and particular talents.

Speaking of trees, nature, and balance, the cherry blossoms were at their peak yesterday in Washington D.C.

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