Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Three Facets of Craftsmanship

Craft as a term in common usage is closely associated with “artisan” work. This common definition leads management-production types to associate any use of the word craft with these sorts of individual efforts and private workshops. Philosophical works such as Sennett's The Craftsman though acknowledging the breadth of the idea of “craftsman” have a tendency to, purposefully, ignore the operative thoughts of craftsmen. Some consultant-types, such as Venkatesh Rao, use the term craftsman synonymously with backward-looking, idiot, or clueless. Either way all these commenters talk a great deal about the idea of craftsmanship without quite acknowledging or really caring that some people still rely on physical productive skill to provide their daily bread.

There are three functional facets to the idea of craftsmanship. The break out is pretty simple and should be immediately recognizable, they include: Artisan or Common Craft, Technical-level craft, and Professional-level Craft.

Most of the academic or scholarly work on the subject of “craft” ignore these distinctions and let their resulting judgments bleed into all three categories.

Common Craft is that craft which is more commonly known as DIY. Often Common craft is very similar in methods and practice to either technical or professional levels, however common craft is also most likely to have no standards associated with it. A crass way to refer to this is "redneck engineering".

More often then not almost anyone around has practiced some measure of common craft. This could be fixing a car, or welding a small mail box together or the like. In the end what makes this distinction most important is that it has the lowest standards. No one will be hurt should the mailbox welds start to corrode. Quite often in these homespun situations the “minimal” is all that is sufficient, and the most economical solution.

Unfortunately many educated people carry with them an unrecognized prejudice when it come to matters of craft. I think this is mostly due to these same tendencies being imbued in wider American Culture. Manufacturing, in modern times, is seen as lower then most office work.   

However no matter the distinctions practitioners of common craft are not engaged in any sort of dangerous or high-stakes work that would require outside safety standards (for both the craftsman and the future client, aside from that which protects the builder) to be introduced. The next facet sees the introduction of these external standards of safety.

All of this is also not to be misconstrued that any of the common crafts aren't valuable. Common craft is, after all, the base on which all the higher levels of skill are built. It is notable that many professional-level craftsman often do a great deal of high quality work outside of the strict regulations of their day job.

Technical Craft is that practiced by those on certain assembly lines and lower levels of skilled crafts. Though the word technician in modern usage seemingly also encompasses skilled craftsman I would like to draw a distinction. Assembly line works who perform one part of a few small parts of a larger production operation are said to be technicians. In many plants there are quite literally two levels: The higher-skilled, better payed craftsman, and the less skilled lower-payed technician.

Good examples include those mechanics that strictly change oil, or line workers who assemble products on a strictly enforced speed standard. These workers often perform work with the help of machines that have been specially designed and pre-programmed and the technician often is just trained to operate that one piece of a much larger process.

This over-specialization of technicians is what technically makes them "unskilled" or "low skill" workers. Their working knowledge only has depth in one narrow area of a craft. This is best visualized in classic image of an assembly line worker.

NOTE: Many job listings often do not make this distinction. Often times skilled labor jobs will be listed with “technician” as the title. When the job may demand professional-level craftsmanship.

There is also some matter of debate over the classification of certain jobs such as: Auto Mechanics, HVAC mechanics, and other repair mechanics . Many professional mechanics that I know certainly wouldn't call themselves craftsman. They all simply prefer to be called mechanics and the jobs are almost universally listed under the label “technician”.

These jobs require more use of analytical skill then do assembly technicians. And the distinction between mechanical and “skilled” are to my mind minor. The main difference rests in what mechanics are not expected to do, and that is to actually fabricate parts. The skilled craftsman such as a welder, machinist, or carpenter actually produces a product from raw material and does not draw the part from a stock of already produced parts.

Skilled or professional craftsman are those who sit at the top of the crafts. Unlike the technician who is overspecialized and the DIYer who lacks any depth of process knowledge the craftsman understands multiple processes and the associated standards that go with them. To this end the actual craftsman might help engineers and designers when it comes to optimizing a production process. As many plants and production sites have very uniquely crafted tool sets that need to be maintained. Everything from electric motors, engines, to miles upon miles of steel piping.

For example, many people know how to weld but there are fewer skilled welders capable of welding to established civic standards. The bridge construction project is a good example as to why such welders are considered skilled and why their skills are also invaluable to industry as a whole.

I am not sure why but it seems all to often when reading accounts about the problems of craft these necessary civic standards are overlooked in the name of a pristine academic model. Sure its easy to say that craftsman are "too" involved or care "too much" about their process; yet such statements belie the fact that it is a professional craftsman's civic duty to take such great personal care in his work.

Vision and Excessive Vision

Despite my quibbles with parts of Richard Sennett's approach in his work, The Craftsman, I do think that he has gotten more right then wrong. He has some wonderful examples of modern visionary excess. Wherein massive building projects lacked on the ground perspective. Here the modern craftsman finds his place a part of larger vision of which his focus is narrowed just as an assembly line workers is.

I too have these concerns in terms of the growing acceptance of knowledge work. The work in and of itself does not let the workers have any vision of their own. Now many modern consultant-types have devised elaborate explanations for the soul-crushing that goes on inside of these offices; visions from lowly drones are still perceived as a threat by those actually running things.
This is all well and good on some level, you will never escape the need for an office or the need for a skull-crusher to be in charge of it all. Yet missing from Rao's critique is the ignorance that The Office, is not the only office. There exists a much maligned term, shop office, that without it there would be no basis for any of the antics that are had on, The Office.

A well maintained shop office keeps everyone on the floor aware of the company's expectations and the goals for that days work. Poor supervision in this department can lead to lost productivity, poor employee relations, or in the worst cases complete failure of the company.

The Well Tested Craftsman

One of the most overlooked aspect of a craftsman's working life is that of the the requirement to perform objectively verifiable work at exacting specifications and thus provide the employer a proper test of sound judgment and ability. In this manner a craftsman is not only taking pride in his own work, but also in the standards set forth for him by society.

This truly objective standard of work sets the craftsman apart from his fellow in the office. Most offices have few, if any, true objective standards; and the few objective standards that do exist are the butt of one of the greatest in-jokes of all time; classically glamorized in the movie Office Space by the ever changing 'TPS' reports.

The best way that I can characterize the drastic difference between corporate and shop offices is through a welders bend test. For those unfamiliar with the process here is a brief description of a standard bend test. While corporate offices worry about promotions, job satisfaction, and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the shop office quite literally puts people to work.

Two small pieces of metal or pipe are cut and ground to represent a small segment of a larger industrial weld. These smaller pieces, called "coupons" are welded in the exact same manner as one would on an industrial welding job. There are numerous variations depending upon what type of job one is doing; plate or pipe and sometimes other more complex tests are assembled. After the welder has finished all welding on the coupon it is cut apart and the resulting sections of the coupon are bent in opposite directions one for the root one for the face. The test is passed only if no cracks appear in or around the welded area.

Now where is the allowed variation you ask? Well there may be minor differences in techniques used to manipulate the electrode, or set the amperage while one welds. Thus different welders might use minutely different techniques to achieve he same effect. In the end such minor variations don't matter as the weld either passes of fails the test as assigned. There is no partial-correct purgatory here; when it comes to the verification of the required skill, you either pass or you fail and that is that. This easy and objectively verifiable skills test is thus grounds for both employment.

I'm tempted here to revisit the story of Drucker's stone cutters. It easy to see why Drucker is only concerned with his workman's ambitions. The executive on the shop floor, has himself nothing but ambition, he has no idea what is going on and in such in a moment of weakness allows his own psyche to become troubled by the supposed threatening ambitions of his own workman.

Now it is also easy to see why office workers revolt over their own standards. Their standards represent something much more sinister. These standards can be, especially when it comes to knowledge work, only a thin line between sanity and deep anger. I suppose it isn't proven fact, but I imagine many people enjoy seeing the fruits of their labor. This is often difficult in the context of an office. Sure numbers fly by every October but numbers themselves are intangible. They are simply information and as such they have little use beyond that which they are intended. The office worker is thus stuck daydreaming an excessive and destructive private vision. This excess of vision hurts the company and it hurts the worker as well.

The Craftsman, on the other hand, has no choice but to share, at least in part, the vision of the company. The Craftsman must take what exists in the minds above him and either create from scratch or else facilitate the completion of that vision. This can affect office workers of any sort, but it is most prone to more senior persons. Quite often work that is done by these people can be shifted around and about by the bigger bosses. To much shifting and and an employee will simply lose sight of their value to the company.

It is often too easy to become too involved in a vision and not involved enough with action. The Office really shows that this is common understanding, there isn't much action at all inside an office! Excess vision and politics, it all shows the reality of office work even as that reality is reviled.

So personally I view vision as good, but it almost seems that in the age of the Internet that this is all we are supposed to rely upon. What we need is not more superfluous vision, as it is harped upon almost daily on the news channels, but instead realistic action. Many differing visions are battling it out on the Internet. Yet, sometimes is better to act on a good plan rather then wait for a perfect plan.

I for sure am tired of hearing about science fiction, singularities and advances yet-to-come. I would like to see real action taken now, and not necessarily from the government. We must be the ones to act. Yet in order to do so we must stop following and buying the empty-yet-still-excessive visions and illusions sold to us by prior generations of Internet and technology prophets. Too bad no one really cares about those who maintain the equipment that facilitates modern technological existence.