Re: Engineers, Technocrats and Common Sense

by The Inmate

Managers and engineers have always doubted how much knowledge workers have. . . .  [Their] belief in the superiority of their knowledge is a result of how Western scientific society has defined knowledge.  According to this conventional view, knowledge is abstract in nature and takes the form of a general scientific law.  It leaves very little room for knowledge resulting from concrete, practical experience.

—Tom Juravich, Chaos on the Shop Floor

In recent months our service center has been converged upon by a number of corporate engineers.  This happens periodically and throughout the fifteen years that I have been employed I have been involved in probably half a dozen of these evaluations or what our company terms, “scope projects.”  To say that I have been “involved” is extremely generous on my part.  Involvement is limited to incorporating what the engineers tell us to incorporate after they studiously, with clipboard and stopwatch in hand, watch us perform our jobs.  I can’t say that I really feel as if I’m being seen either.  I am an invisible man unless, for some reason usually contrary to my better judgment, I decide to reveal myself by, God forbid, offering an opinion on tasks I’ve been performing for well over a decade.

A number of months ago I scheduled a meeting with one of these engineers after he gave a corporatespeak speech to us and during the course of that meeting was assured that this scope project would be much better than the last one.  I said I’d have a “wait and see attitude” based upon my history with our company.  Not only was it no better, but it was, in my case, worse.  I was never asked for any input.

Input and involvement are great words that the corporation bandies about with much fervor and fanfare.  Unfortunately it is a rare thing when workers, particularly, as is my case, blue-collar workers are legitimately asked to be involved in making decisions about what they do every day or as a UPS driver once said to me, “Every damn day.”  The presence of the engineers has created and/or revealed a fair amount resentment and cynicism at our station–from both workers and management.  One of my colleagues, a man who has been delivering for overnight express companies for at least fifteen years, said to me the other day, “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing, Glen.”  Someone in management pulled me aside to say, “Don’t worry about these engineers.  They’re just here to cause us trouble.  When they leave we’ll do it our own way.”

That is the reality.  I’ve seen it happen after every one of these things.  Are we just rebellious?  Are our egos so fragile that we can’t take a little criticism or a few suggestions?  In rare cases, maybe, but the majority of the problem is that these engineers who are not involved on a daily basis with what we do everyday are in no position to make the best decisions regarding the tasks we perform.  This has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence only a lack of experience.  It doesn’t matter how mundane or easy a job may appear to an outsider there is always a great amount of knowledge, craft or insider knowledge as it is sometimes called, that one gains from experience.  There are “secret” little ways of doing this or that that  could never be figured out by simply thinking about it.  If engineers were truly interested in improving the company they would be gatherers of information and facilitators, people who would provide the environment for workers to use and incorporate in broad corporate daylight the practical knowledge they have gained from their years of experience.

Engineers and technocrats often try to intimidate workers with statistics and specialized language.   The latter is more often than not a means of attempting to camouflage ignorance and/or establish who is the center of power.  Too often people are persuaded by words rather than ideas and worse still persuaded by ideas that have not been tried in the real world.  Just because a worker is not articulate doesn’t mean that they do not know what they are talking about.  And just because technocrats may use words most people do not know doesn’t mean they do know what they are talking about.  If technocrats cannot explain what it is they mean in understandable terms it is a good bet(make it if you can) that they themselves have failed to comprehend the very things they are asserting they know.

If worker knowledge was actually pursued and instituted productivity and morale would increase.  One of the arguments I have heard(and just recently from management) is that if workers and management were asked to do what the engineers were doing they would try to take advantage of the situation or they would be incapable of doing it.  Encased in this argument is both a lack of trust in employees and low view of their abilities.  The majority of workers would enjoy having a real say in what it is they do every day and would have competent ideas.  This is not to say that if workers were asked to increase productivity or reduce costs or whatever that there would not be problems.  Of course there would be.  Part of the reason for this is that it would be a new experience and anything new takes adjustment(“You mean you actually trust me to handle this situation?  What’s going on here?”).  However, since they do the job every day they will have the best ideas about how to improve it.  Tom Juravich writes “As Kustere demonstrates in Know-How on the Job (1978), all jobs from bank teller to longshoreman demand an insider’s knowledge, without which the job cannot be done effectively.”  It’s common sense.

“Excuse me, Mr. Inmate.”

“Yes?  Who are you?”

“I’m a corporate engineer–“

“A technocrat?”

“Why thank you, yes.  Anyway, I’m curious about this term: ‘common sense.'”

“Well—“

“Maybe ‘curious’ was not the best term I could have used, possibly a better word would be skeptical, in fact, it seems fair to say that common sense has been supplanted . . .”

“Supplanted?”

“Yes, supplanted with the advent of computerized technology, certain statistical programs and data, MBA’s, Taylorism and corporate objectives that are impossible to comprehend without a corporate overview of the business paradigm.  You see, synergy itself has subsumed common sense to such a degree that it is no longer necessary to even use the term or common sense itself.  Such terms and traits delay business exegesis of important documents necessary to building the structure necessary for structure building inside the structural context of individualized restructuring due to parasitic demands of incorporated corporations. . . . you’re gripping my arm rather tightly there, Mr. Inmate, a looser grip would conserve calories and . . . uhhh . . . I wasn’t really ready to leave at this particular juncture in our dialogue . . . . ouch!  Do you think the window is really the most efficient means of exiting this rather confined office?”

Sorry for that interruption.  Anyway, as I was saying, it is common sense to let people who do the job everyday have the largest say in how to do it.   Instead of only being allowed to give their ideas to a manager or engineer who makes the decision whether or not to use them, workers should have both the opportunity and responsibility of instituting their ideas and this should be done on a consistent basis.  To be fair, there are companies where this is happening.  They are, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule.

Statistical data has become God incarnate in the corporate world.  I like Benjamin Disraeli’s comment on this: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”  Statistics are useful–useful–not the final word, not the thing to use for a complete evaluation.  Statistics used as a sole basis for evaluation is a demeaning process.  Many statistical evaluations fail to take into consideration the variables and there are always variables, there are always exceptions, there are always problems.  That is why everyone can relate to “Murphy’s Law.”  Our engineer was proud to say that they had broken deliveries down into increments that included the time it took to ring a doorbell (I feel compelled to state that I am not kidding on this.).  Let’s say, just for the sake of a friendly argument, I push the doorbell, but it doesn’t work.  Then I have to knock.  Now you still have the time I pushed the doorbell, the time I waited for a response, plus the time I knocked which also depends on how many times I knock.  Or let’s say the person I’m delivering to in one house is sitting next to the front door and in another house is upstairs sitting next to the toilet paper.  I guess I’m just wondering if in the second case our engineers will take into consideration the time it takes me to wait while someone wipes.

What ultimately amazes me is the money corporations spend for people who are unnecessary.  Consultants are often hired by the corporation to do or fix what management and workers could do or fix themselves–if given the opportunity and the time.  They hire us to do a job–but do not let us do it.  Let us take the blame or let us take the credit.  That would be better than what we get now: we take the blame if it doesn’t work and they take the credit when it does work, because when they leave, we, as much as we possibly can under corporate constraints, do it our way–the way that works.

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know what I’m doing,” he said.  “And I learned it without all that education that them what’s been sent down here is suppose to have.  I learned it by doing it.”

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man


works cited:

  • Disraeli quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations,  Fourth Edition, edited by Angela Partington, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 1992, pg. 249.
  • Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man, Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1990, pg. 215.
  • Juravich, Tom, Chaos on the Shop Floor: A Worker’s View of Quality, Productivity, and Management,  Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1985, pp. 88, 53.

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