Over time, at first gradually, then suddenly, we seem to have become a fit-for-purpose society. In the same way that we achieved manufacturing scale by producing large numbers of parts efficiently, and then designing products that could use them interchangeably, we have sucked character out of businesses (and arguably society) in the same pursuit of efficiency.
Almost every vehicle from the VW Group that is transverse-front-engined and bigger than a VW Up will eventually be based on the MQB parts matrix. MQB stands for Modularer Querbaukasten, or modular transversal toolkit. It lays down a series of hard points for a huge range of cars and powertrains. These hard points determine the common design of production line. But they also allow systems (for example entertainment systems or aircon or axles) of differing sizes and complexities to be fitted, provided their mounts link with the hard points. All the electric systems are also designed to pair up with the MQB’s unified electrical architecture.Topgear
We have adopted a similar approach to everything from food franchises and hotels to consultancy. Design a system, create or train standardised parts, crank up the volume.
When it works, it works really well – but does rely on the market not changing faster then we can cope with. There is I think a further complication. Just as if the only tool we have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail, so when we have a limited number of interdependent and interchangeable parts, we see the future an an adaption of the system we work in. We end up platform dependent in a world of burning platforms.
A crosshead screwdriver is a great thing – it gives secure location and real traction when used with crosshead screws, although outside of that, is of limited use. A flathead screwdriver on the other hand requires more skill and care to use, but is far more flexible. An improvised chisel, paint can lid remover, weeding tools for use between paving stones, all of which it does less well than a specialised fit-for-purpose tool, but is much better than nothing in the moment when something unexpected turns up and needs to be dealt with now. Fit-for-purpose is efficient, but not so resilient.
Try taking a paint lid off with a crosshead screwdriver.
The challenge we have, in my view, is that we have been educating and training fit-for-purpose people. Increasingly specialised, they work really well when in an environment their training was designed for, but get quickly out of their depth and underconfident when not. They have been taught to believe in a platform more than they believe in themselves.
It’s a problem for companies, but a potential disaster for people. Companies can at least just buy a new set of skills from the market, but people used to one way of working, with all the support that allows them to their job efficiently have a much bigger challenge. The more efficient we become, the less transferable (and increasingly short term) the skills we learn are.
Over at New Artisans, a small group of us are exploring the role of the artisan in a changing business world. One of the interesting things about artisans is that they are trained for the whole, not a part. A cabinet maker designs and makes cabinets, not just cabinet doors. A Cooper makes barrels, not just staves. When things change, it is artisans who are at the heart of it, creating the new – until the change settles down, when they tend to succumb to the reductive power of efficiency.
Back when the Americans took to throwing perfectly good tea into Boston harbour, for what I concede was good reason, it was artisans who were at the heart of change. Paul Revere, he of the midnight ride, was a silversmith. Those who forged the Republic were dominated by artisans who embodied the American ideal of self sufficiency. It didn’t stop them in the end succumbing to the industrial revolution, but by that time, their job was done.
I think we are in such a time now. If we only understand a part of what we do, or rely on software to do things we cannot do manually, we will end up reliant on work that requires our very particular skills as they become increasingly obsolesent. Crosshead screwdrivers in a world needing people who can open metaphorical paint cans – effectively if not efficiently at first. Efficieny can come later.
Whatever we do, craft thinking is an advantage. I believe we are entering a period where we have to grasp the emerging as it forms, when it is not being presented to us neatly wrapped.
There is an opportunity to work with people and emerging opportunities in the same way that a carpenter works with a piece of wood; sensing what it want to be, rather than using brute force to make them what we want them to be. The end result will be immeasurably better.
What a great time to be around.