5 min read

The Centrality of Craftsmanship

Craftsmanship is a mentality we can bring into our work in bureaucracies.

 In his beautifully crafted book, "The Craftsman", Richard Sennet, defines craftsmanship as doing a job well for its own sake.

I practise scales on the guitar (bass) or piano (in the past) with this mentality. Are my fingers doing the right thing? Are their positions correct? How is the tone, am I extracting a rounded, full tone or am I striking the strings in such a way that the tone is tinny? And so on and so forth.

Yes, it improves technique but the essential is to play the scale well for its own sake. The technique comes as a consequence.

And with this, we touch on something important. The difference between goals and consequences.

Much of what we do in business, particularly the change business, is geared towards consequences. But we portray them as goals.

Cost-cutting is a prime example.

Most change initiatives have as one of, if not the, driver, lowering costs. So we cut. Usually positions, or desks.

But lowered costs are the consequence of improved practices. Stripping out waste, delivering exemplary service and so forth. Do these things and costs will come down, naturally.

By focussing on the consequence as a goal, we set up misleading measures.

And by setting up misleading measures, we encourage counter-productive behaviour.

So while I'm writing to you as a mid-level manager, I want to start this with a piece on the centrality of craftsmanship because it brings it down to an individual level.

I was first exposed to the life-affirming characteristic of craftsmanship in Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

That was in the 1980s but it has stuck with me through the decades. My own life has meant that I could never have a workshop as such so I attempted to use the lessons in my, mainly intellectual, work as I could adapt.

The next major influence came from C. Wright Mills in his book, "The Sociological Imagination". While the book is interesting from a "conducting sociological studies" perspective, the part that caught my attention was the appendix, "On Intellectual Craftsmanship".

Here was someone who not only understood but could articulate the importance, and the value, of seeing thinking as a craft. Writing is a craft, definitely, and a craft necessary to express thinking but thinking as a craft is equally important.

The third book to have an influence was even more recent. Cal Newport's "Deep Work" ties together many threads, including the phenomenal work of, in his words, the most often misspelt psychologist in the world, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In essence, "Deep Work" is about sustained periods of deep concentration, times during which you enter Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" and time seems to stand still. Furniture makers, potters, weavers and knitters all speak of this experience.

Peter Korn's "Why We Make Things & Why It Matters" is a beautifully written account of his life-long realisation that working with his hands was a form of thinking. Richard Sennett writes about similar things in his book, "The Craftsman".

That's a lot of book references and they are not only there to show that this is not a new field, they also provide the jumping off point for this essay.

Craftsmanship rests on the idea that a job worth doing is worth doing well. Sennett describes a craftsman-like approach as "doing a job well for its own sake". I like that in that the driver for quality comes from the job itself, not a customer, not a manager, the job itself.

Think how that could influence work in a bureaucracy. Close enough would no longer be good enough. If a cabinet maker worked to the standards we find in the service sector, nothing would stand straight. However, if knowledge workers, as coined by Peter Drucker, were to work to the craftsman's ideal, the quality of decision-making would increase exponentially. What do I mean?

Peter Korn writes,

In furniture making, beginnings are critical. For a simple frame-and-panel cabinet door to stay flat over the long haul, and not become too tight in summer or overly gapped in winter. Success starts with the choice of timber. Not just what species or which plank, but also from which part of the board one saws the stiles and rails, how dry the wood is, the method by which it was dried, and how it was stored and handled. All this before the actual work of milling the timber flat and square, laying out and cutting the joinery, making and fitting the panel, assembling, trimming, fitting, hinging, latching, and finishing. Throughout the entire process, the quality achievable at each stage is utterly dependent on the care with which the craftsman has accomplished every previous step.

Now, imagine if we applied the same rigour and care to our thinking then how we craft our words to express that thinking.

And those words may be written or spoken.

Or we may express the thoughts and their connections in models; circles, squares and triangles.

In fact, Matt Church of Thought Leaders uses a similar approach that he calls "Pink Sheeting". If you're not familiar with his techniques for capturing ideas and rounding them out completely, I recommend a thorough look over the concept.

In the lean movement, they talk of seven types of waste. For the moment, I just want to focus on one: rework.

Using Peter Korn's example from above, you can well imagine the amount of rework and "waste" that would occur if the stiles and rails were sawn from the wrong part of the plank. Everything that followed would be wasted. The door might stick in summer which, on the face of it, is of no particular concern to the cabinet maker - unless the cabinet was for his own use - but in terms of pride in workmanship, it matters a great deal.

Yet in our service bureaucracies, we accept rework rates of up over 100% on a regular basis. Let's have a look at what that means, concretely. A call centre is a good example.

Matthew Crawford's wonderful book, "Shop Class as Soulcraft" is a fantastic read on the role of maintenance and repair work as a means of engendering individual responsibility. In his summary of Crawford's book, Korn writes,

He punctures the myth of white-collar superiority by pointing out the today's corporate workplace has been rationalised as relentlessly as the industrial factory of a century earlier (Herzog's magnificent film, "Metropolis" dealt with this in 1929…). Creative thought and decision making are centralised in the hands of small cohorts of experts, so that only rote work gets distributed to the worker bees. As a result, the average white-collar employee feels, accurately, like a replaceable cog in a soulless machine; work has been stripped of its potential to provide meaning and fulfilment.

Crawford's book was published in 2009, long before the current enthusiastic embrace of AI's potential to replace your average office worker…

In management theory speak, we are, of course, describing Taylorism, the separation of thinking and doing and it should be of no surprise that we are singularly incapable of moving beyond Taylorism in a workforce that relies on intellectual effort rather than manual. But that is what we need to do.

Taylorism is all about command and control, it was developed in a quarry and a foundry and, in the world of knowledge workers, is ideally suited to bureaucracies. But these bureaucracies are largely populated by tertiary educated, intelligent people. They deserve better.

And that's where you as a mid-level manager enter the picture.

Your mission, should you choose it accept it, is to slowly, subtly, and with much care, overturn the prevailing management paradigm.

And here is one way to do it.