Artisans Improvise

image: ABC13 Houston

When complicated moves over to complex, the rules change.

The systems and processes so carefully and expensively crafted to get to efficiency start failing. Events occur that were not only not foreseen, their characteristics are different. It’s when our learned dependency on predetermined systems fails us.

Artisans have a natural advantage in these circumstances. By their nature, they are masters of their craft, whether that is coding or carpentry. They know how to use all the tools in the box rather than one or two, and have an easy familiarity with the materials they work with, whether lathe or operating system. Rather like the famous scene in Apollo 13, they can tip out whatever is to hand, and work with others to put something together to deal with “now” whilst trying to understand what happened.

One of the key tools of efficiency is deductive thinking – taking the whole, breaking it down into its component parts, optimising each part and then putting it back together. It does however mean that whilst clever people are expert at a part of the process, very few are expert in the whole, and the ones who are are rarely on the front line. When complexity turns up and the bits don’t fit together the way they are supposed to, life gets interesting.

The bits don’t fit together anymore.

We need inductive thinking (working out the whole from the parts) and abductive thinking (integrating deductive and abductive) – or in simpler language, improvisation. Improvisation needs critical thinking as much as expertise.

Artisans can improvise because they don’t just solve problems, they look for new ones that haven’t yet occurred. They do it because of their relationship with the work. They read and discuss over, under, through and round their craft so that they not just understand it, they empathise with it. When a new problem turns up, they can recognise its nature quickly because they are prepared.

We have discouraged and disabled artisans in our businesses in the easy times to benefit from efficiency and “waste reduction”. If Apollo 13 had focused on efficiency, they may not have had the redundant spare parts from which to create a workaround and keep the operation alive.

Artisans can improvise because it’s in their nature of commitment and curiosity.

We have far many more potential artisans around than we allow for. Leaders would do well to recognise, encourage and enable them, and remember that artisans have options and will go where the good work and the leaders are.

Creating artisans is, in efficiency terms wasteful but when you’re a long way from home and want to get back, you might appreciate it for what it represents.

There’s good waste and bad waste, and understanding the difference may just help the artisans improvise to save us when normal doesn’t work anymore.

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