The Factory Model

Craig Thomler’s post about redesigning government got me thinking about the other ways that legacies from the Industrial Revolution are no longer serving us well. The language could use some updating. So could the ways we think about how best to structure work.

One of my recent favorite non-fiction books is “Shop Class as Soul Craft” by Matthew Crawford. He breaks down the evolution of work from cottage industry, where one individual followed the manufacturing process from end-to-end; to the factory model, where a thing was made by many people repeating the same small part of the process over and over. The goods became less expensive, the golden age of American manufacturing era continues to be the go-to example of the good old days, and enough people were happy with it to count. Management in knowledge industries eyed the efficiency of factory manufacturing with envy and have gradually driven knowledge or white-collar work towards the factory model, where no one person owns a process from end to end.

So now we have Lean Six Sigma – taken from the Toyota manufacturing plant – applied to federal work. I witnessed this first hand with a “black belt” practitioner brought into a Department of Defense office. This office’s primary responsibility was customer service and frankly, the practitioner brought no benefit to either the office or the customer. Anyone who has ever worked with another individual in any context has first-hand experience with the irrefutable fact that people are the antithesis of efficient. Most of us don’t read the manual or the SOP, we want to talk to someone. We want information through our relationships, not through a PDF. We have extenuating circumstances and we refuse one-size-fits-all solutions. In short, we’re messy and highly resistant to factory processing. Remember the last time you had to fix something with your cell phone carrier and you got passed from person to person because each individual was only able to address a fraction of the issue you were dealing with?

My hypothesis is that the factory model is failing as applied to the parts of Federal Government that have to deliver services to an individual. Go back to the example of trying to deal with your cell company. Who exactly benefits from all that efficiency? It doesn’t serve the customer and the people I get on the phone when I call my bank don’t sound particularly invested either.

It seems to me that the factory federal culture has given us a list of government truisms, none of them particularly laudable:

  • progress is measured by numbers instead of results
  • “it isn’t in my job description”
  • glazed-eyed rubber-stampers
  • fixing anything requires a level of coordination equal to getting every resident of the Tower of Babel sitting down at a table and communicating effectively
  • doing what needs to be done tends to conflict with established policy
  • retirement in place
  • individual investment in the outcomes is an act of heroism, considering how hard it is to impact the system
  • success means passing the issue forward

Surely there must be a model for delivering services to real live messy people that doesn’t hold the factory up as the gold standard of effective management…

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