The Future of Work

View to Future Work

Review by Daniel Adkins

The new book, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, studies an increasingly dynamic culture in the more creative sectors of U.S. industry (film and technology). The guidelines for the “creative industry” are in sharp contrast to how most U.S. industries and the government currently work. Yet the future holds competition with a mercantile China, when all our work requires creativity and sustainability. How we treat each other and work will be changing to meet future national needs. Whether we meet the challenge by a part of the U.S., or by all of us will be important to our success.

As background for the book it is useful to view two trends in the labor process of the last hundred plus years. One is the old work model from 1900s is called “Taylorism or Scientific Management,” and was created by Frederick W. Taylor. This theory is still alive in the Amazon.com. The theory aimed at controlling the physical work of labor by using time and motion studies to script the flow of work. Combined with the assembly line, it influenced the way work was organized for much of the last century. The theory moved the mental aspects of physical labor (or how work is done), to be decided by industrial engineers and management. Some of its excesses were mitigated by labor unions which negotiated health and safety aspects of the labor process. Today Amazon uses Taylorism and computers to drive some employees so severely in un-air-conditioned warehouses that ambulances are needed to protect non-unionized workers’ health. It seems Jeff Bezos’ libertarian individualism works for CEOs’ wealth but not so much for workers’ survivability.

In the 1950s another movement arose that was sometimes called Total Quality Movement (TQM), or the Deming System of Profound Knowledge. This movement was inspired by the academic W. Edwards Deming’s life’s work. The effort was to systematize the mental labor of work and management. Instead of programming labor like a computer, Deming wanted to enroll labor’s mental capacities by giving workers skills to evaluate the work process and provide aid. Management was also engaged to think in terms of systems of work and design as well of the psychology of workers and management. Deming’s teaching in Japan resulted in that country’s leapfrogging the quality of American cars and other products.

The Deming principles go far beyond the focus on short-term profits and managers’ belief that they have sole responsibility to control an organization. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge includes an appreciation of the system of production and market, a knowledge of variation in quality, including statistical sampling, a theory of knowledge that includes its limits, and a knowledge of psychology and human nature. This more complex focus presupposes organizations’ learning to cooperate within and among themselves. The process would drive out fear among staff, enabling honest communication, allowing pride of workmanship, instituting education and self-improvement, and instilling the value that organizational transformation is everybody’s job. He also championed the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. Deming demanded a profoundly cooperative, educational, and motivated system with a long-term view in order to create a highly competitive organization.

Below are some of Deming’s principles (use Google to learn more).

  • Create a constant purpose toward improvement.
  • Continuously improve your systems and processes.
  • Use training on the job.
  • Implement leadership (Be a coach instead of a policeman).
  • Eliminate fear.
  • Break down barriers between departments.
  • Remove barriers to pride of workmanship.
  • Implement education and self-improvement.
  • Make “transformation” everyone’s job.

Creativity, Inc. is the history of the growth of computer graphics and Pixar, which is one of the U.S. industry’s crown jewels. Pixar is the culmination of over 40 years of computer animation development mixed with world-class storytelling. Catmull, the author, helped lead the computer graphic revolution that allowed Pixar to excel. The author expanded his technical skills into the management of creative people including artists of stories and animation. The story of Pixar is the story of inventing the enabling hardware, software, culture, processes, and story lines.

Some of Pixar’s principles are listed below and the reader will see that they parallel Deming’s guidelines. These are the most relevant to development and creative tasks but can enable excellence in many work environments.

  • When hiring people, give more weight to their growth potential than their current skill level.
  • If there are people in your organization not free to suggest ideas, you lose.
  • “Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.”
  • “If there is fear in an organization, there is a reason for it – our job is to find what’s causing it, understand it, and try to root it out.”
  • “If there is more truth in the hallways than at meeting, you have a problem.”
  • “Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the enterprise.”
  • “Many managers feel that if they are not notified about problems before others . . it is a sign of disrespect. Get over it.” [This can happen when managers are more focused on competing with each other, than solving agency problems.]
  • “Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capacity to recover when the unexpected events occur.”
  • “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. . . It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”
  • “The people ultimately responsible for implementing a plan must be empowered to make decisions when things go wrong, even before getting approval.”
  • “Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.” [Management competition and pride can block this.]
  • “An organization, as a whole, is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it. . . . it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board.”

The trick of these statements is to think of them as a prompt toward deeper inquiry.

Reading Creativity, Inc. inspired me think of how its lessons might impact the needs of our increasingly educated society and our society’s work processes. The efficiencies highlighted in Creativity, Inc. will be necessary in a highly competitive world economy, but would be poisoned by our winner–take-all society.

Working in the federal government for more than forty years gave me a view to the limits of bureaucratic work. When staff and managers compete with each other or view their division as their own personal area, then often knowledge of the work process, potential options, creativity, and efficiency are lost. Teamwork is possible but not dominant and will not change without major challenges.

The question of work styles may become intense as China becomes a developed country. China is a mercantilist country led by an elite focused on maximizing the country’s economic wealth and dominance. The U.S. is different in that it tries to maximize its elites wealth (via Congress), but not the country’s wealth (i.e. its people’s potential). A mercantilist country could out perform elites who are more focused extracting wealth from its people then developing them. This contradiction will make for increasing political fractures in the U. S.

Competiveness can be aided by a government that supports all our pursuit of happiness and development. Social democratic programs that support publicly funded education and health care, sustainable growth, and worker involvement in design and leadership will use all of our mental and physical powers. Public (sometimes called “free”) education from state universities and trade schools would allow graduates to focus on their new careers and families instead of having to wait until they are out of debt to start living. A publicly funded universal health care system would cut national health care costs and eliminate the primary cause of personal bankruptcy. Work councils with unions have allowed Germany to enlist their workers’ minds as well as their strength to make world-class cars and appliances. Why should Americans be satisfied with work processes that bleed millions of recalls? Policies focusing on the near-term profits of the few need to be in second place to policies focusing on long-term sustainable growth.

Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration by Ed Catmull, 2014, Random House.

Daniel C. Adkins has been a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, American Federation of Teachers, and an officer in the National Treasury Employee’s Union Chapter 213 for the U.S. Department of Energy HQ.  At the DoE’s Energy Information Administration he was the union partner to EIA’s Administrator for TQM and quality issues

One Response

  1. Brother Adkins makes some excellent points in his post on “The Future of Work.” I’d like to add a few respectful comments, and doubts.
    For example:
    “China is a mercantilist country led by an elite focused on maximizing the country’s economic wealth and dominance. The U.S. is different in that it tries to maximize its elites wealth (via Congress), but not the country’s wealth (i.e. its people’s potential). A mercantilist country could out perform elites who are more focused extracting wealth from its people then developing them. This contradiction will make for increasing political fractures in the U. S.”
    The above describes contemporary U.S. policy as clearly as can be. Whether China will be able over the long run to assert the priority of its national interest vis-à-vis its greedy elites is more doubtful.

    “when all our work requires creativity and sustainability.”
    It is not clear that “all” our work will ever require creativity and sustainability. In a future increasingly dominated by a creative sector, many of us could be left behind selling each other menial services.

    “Social democratic programs that support publicly funded education and health care, sustainable growth, and worker involvement in design and leadership will use all of our mental and physical powers.”
    Here is the potential. Now, how to make it real?
    Carl Proper
    ILGWU, UNITE, UNITE HERE, retired

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