‘All Hail the 863’ – Chapter 5, ‘The Intelligent Hand’

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I had the great privilege of working on David Savage’s new book, “The Intelligent Hand” – yet I confess it flummoxed me on my first several editing passes. After years of writing and editing straightforward, linear woodworking how-to articles, I couldn’t from a dispassionate technical viewpoint wrap my mind around what I eventually came to know as a weird and wonderful book. To realize that, I had to turn off at least in part my left brain and approach the book mostly with my right brain (the side that hears music real and metaphoric, and absorbs art emotionally rather than analyzes it). Doing just that is a lesson David imparts throughout. It took me a while.

So I got through the technical sentence structure/grammar/English spellings stuff, then read it again with my literary, not technical brain. And there it was: A book that forces you to consider your own motivations/reactions/work as it reveals in a sometimes-coquettish style the thought and design processes of its author. Like David’s furniture work, it is altogether unexpected, yet altogether delightful and inspiring.

I don’t think I’m yet among his 863 (see below); I’m still too scared by my lack of a corporate safety net (with its attendant health insurance and regular paycheck). But I’m getting closer; books like David’s help.

— Fitz

I need to take you back in time to the beginning of the 20th century. I need to do this in order to explain what I think has happened to us, and why.

As Henry Ford set up his first production line in America in 1913, the Arts & Crafts Movement was being established in the sunny fields of England. Ford developed an existing (brilliant) idea to “bring the work to the worker.” In truth, it was more complex and more revolutionary than that. What Ford was did was to create a system of activities.

Until then, vehicle manufacture occurred in small workshops and factories with relatively skilled engineers doing varied and various work – the stuff we celebrate. What Ford did was analyse that work and break it down into a series of steps. Each step could then be carried out by a relatively unskilled person. The steps were put in sequence, and the partially complete vehicle was brought to the worker.

This is one of the most famous examples of what was to become a major management process in 20th-century industry, not only in the factory but also the office. The “Knowledge Engineer” systematised skills and created processes that became the management’s property. All that was left after their passing was the script and the process.

To fill 100 jobs on his new production line, Ford was forced to hire 963 skilled workmen and women (863 did not stay on). And he had to double his wages to achieve his goals. Rather than hissing and spitting, Ford described this as one of his best business decisions. The extra cost for wages was recouped straight away by increasing the speed of the production line, instantly doubling, and later trebling, production. This was new. Before this, paying extra for piecework didn’t increase production and may in fact have decreased it. Ford had workers working at a speed he could choose. This could not have been achieved just by paying people more money.

The 863 who could not stomach Ford’s new factory are, for me, the interesting ones. Where did they go? History consigned them to the rubbish dump of the past. Like buggy whip makers in the age of the automobile, they were no longer needed. But my hat is removed in honour to their instincts. I would have been amongst them. For they knew that their skills and knowledge were part of a balanced and well-lived life.

This was called “scientific management” and was outlined in the monograph “Principles of Scientific Management” (1911) by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor writes:
“The managers assume the burden of gathering together all the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by workmen and then of classifying, tabulating and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws and formulae…. All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centred in the planning and layout department.”

In this way, Taylor, whose work was hugely influential in the early 20th century, was able to encourage the concentration of scattered craft knowledge into the hands of “the process managers.” The “time and motion analysis” was born. The objective was to create a process that, once designed, needed no further thought or tinkering. In that situation, skilled workers could be replaced at machines by unskilled ones. Labour and cost were thus reduced as production increased. Skill once observed and analysed was no longer needed.

Soon after this, the age of consumer spending was upon us. Thrift and avoidance of debt – a mark of prudence and good management – was to become a thing of the past. Consumption engineers such as Claude Hopkins, one of the early leaders of marketing, sought to bring consumption under the hand of scientific management. Now we could earn money building cars, and maybe, if we paid over 10 years on the “Never Never” (aka an installment plan), we could drive one as well! Aren’t we smart all of a sudden! All we needed to do was to give up the personal skill we earned over 10,000 hours. Plus, the personal pride in the achievement of making, of doing something complex and difficult and doing it well. For there was no real skill required on Ford’s line – just hard manual work, day after day, after day, after day. The 863 who could not take up Ford’s offer could not do that. All hail the daft old 863!

Who can deny the enormous prosperity and economic comfort that this scientific management has brought us? We work, we earn money, we have holidays and we pay taxes. Then we get a pension and die. And don’t think that being a smarty in an office will save you. The same “expert systems” are coming your way. In the book “The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future in the Factory of the Past” (1989, Penguin), Barbara Garson writes:

“The modern knowledge engineer performs similar detailed studies, only he anatomizes decision making rather than bricklaying. So, time and motion study has become a time and thought study…. To build expert systems, a living expert is debriefed and then cloned by a knowledge engineer. That is to say, an expert is interviewed, typically for weeks or months. The knowledge engineer watches the expert work on sample problems and asks exactly what factors the expert considers is making his apparently intuitive decisions.
“Eventually, hundreds or thousands of rules of thumb are fed into the computer. The result is a program that can ‘make decisions’ or ‘draw conclusions’ heuristically instead of merely calculating with equations. Like a real expert, an expert system, should be able to draw inferences from ‘iffy’ or incomplete data that seems to suggest or tends to rule out. In other words it uses (or replaces) judgment.”

My wife, Carol, worked recently in an office in Bideford. She spent her day on the telephone reading prepared scripts to prospective clients, who were owners of holiday cottages. Carol has a degree in economics; she has worked on the trading floors of some of the world’s most famous investment banks. Carol could sell ice to Eskimos. But their scripts were what the company wanted spoken; Carol was only a mouthpiece. Her ideas of what they were doing wrong and how it could be improved were of no interest to the company. She was cheap local female labour that came and went while the system controlled by the company remained intact. Its image as a small family company remained unchallenged, but the truth is very different.

I do not suggest that this is bad. I cannot ague that this systemisation, this splitting of thinking and doing, has not resulted in huge economic benefit. We are all vastly more wealthy and more secure than previous generations. This is good; nobody can argue with that. But there is a type of person – and I see them coming to Rowden year after year – who does not quite fit this pattern. Someone who wants a bit more from life than a job, money, holidays and a pension. She wants something else; she wants to use her head and have responsibility for what she makes. She wants to make a thing about which she can say, “That’s mine; I made that.” And she wants to sell it for money, decent money.

All hail the 863.

— David Binnington Savage, from “The Intelligent Hand

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About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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9 Responses to ‘All Hail the 863’ – Chapter 5, ‘The Intelligent Hand’

  1. nrhiller says:

    Love your remarks here, Megan. I would like to hear more about the ways in which you helped shape this book.

  2. John Thomas says:

    I have had the experience of growing up and working during some of the years when some of the changes to manufacturing were done. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, we have more ‘stuff’, and on the other, we have a growing population of people who cannot think or do simple things without aid from created ‘stuff’. We as a Group, human beings, must not lose those critical skills of thinking, imagination, and wonder. That is what makes us human.

  3. SSteve says:

    Fitz, I completely think of you as one of the 863. You don’t read from the company script. And you 100% use your head and have responsibility for what you make. Having/wanting/needing a corporate safety net is not necessarily incompatible with being in the 863. Not all companies exist on stifling their employees’ creativity. I’m lucky enough to work for a small family-owned corporation like that.

  4. jpassacantando says:

    I bought “Intelligent Hand” last week. Hard copy ships in October but you immediately get an electronic version. I was reading it all weekend and can’t wait to read the hard copy and really be able to run my eyes over the drawings/watercolors by Savage. It’s fantastic!

    Trying to describe it to a woodworking buddy last night who said well, what kind of book is it? I said, it’s a memoir, but it’s also about how an iconoclast evolves a personal philosophy. There’s plenty of advice and “how to” in there but it is so much more, putting it immediately on that short shelf with Soul of a Tree, A Cabinet Maker’s Notebook, and Anarchist Design Book. It is honest and poignant and sad and beautiful and, damn, trust me, it’s worth every bit of the 50 bucks.

    Lost Art Press scores another one!

  5. Seems like that should be a toast or something… “To the 863!”

    Oh, but I’d love to be one of the 863!
    And oh, but I’m too chicken shit to take such steps. :\

    I don’t quite want to go to work, go home, eat dinner, sleep, collect my pension, and die, by any means, but…
    I’m also not one of those types who handles stress all that well. So when other things in my life are busy falling apart, it’s nice to have the comfort of a stable and positive place of employment to rely on. And… I think the place where I work is different from most? Any time I describe it to people, they say it’s one of those companies you hear about but never find. It’s a unicorn company, if ever there was one.
    So yeah, the golden handcuffs don’t chaff all that much. And I sort of get a taste of both worlds.

    • jonfiant says:

      Man, you perfectly described me as well. I can so relate.

    • mike says:

      In many ways my day job is soulless. But my dad was in the skilled trades and I worked summers and winter breaks with him during college. He was a pipefiter. He liked his work buy I can tell you first hand that welding all day in 100F summer heat and being stuck in a trench on 0F winter days sucks. The pay is good – a journeyman pipefitter makes about $45/hr + cadillac benefits here in Chicago. Still, my dad’s body broke down around the age of 55 and he did not want that for me.

      So I have seen both sides of the equation and working 50 hours in a climate controlled office (including at least 50 nights a year if business travel) is fine by me. The only validation I need from my day job is a paycheck. I never got trapped into thinking it should be meaningful beyond its ability to provide my family a decent lifestyle.

      I started as a CPA and picked my profession the old fashioned way.

      “Dad, what should I major in”.

      He tossed me the Sunday Chicago Tribune and said “Here is my union card. It says ‘pipefitter’ not ‘guidance counselor’. Look in the jobs section and see who is hiring”.

      There were plenty of accounting jobs so I did that. I then realized my full time tuition package was for up to 18 hours a quarter, but classes were in 4 hour blocks so basically I could take 5 classes and the 5th class would be half price. I did that and finished all my coursework in 3 years and 1 quarter.

      My point is I see all these people talking about fulfillment and “wanting to make something” and wonder where they are coming from. I know all the trade unions here allow for near six figure incomes, are hiring, and have fabulous benefits. But I guess the “shop class for the soul crowd” is really after some kind of Krenov existence or making one cabinet at a time. Sorry that is a dream. If you want to work with your hands, there is work out there but is is Work with a capital W.

  6. mike says:

    I ordered the book last week. I perused the .pdf but am doing my best to not read these chapter previews…. trying to avoid *SPOILERS*.

  7. Bob Glenn says:

    Meagan, We talked at Klein’s plane workshop last week. It’s good to hear someone else talk about right brain/left brain. I am working through “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and it has opened my eyes to seeing, really seeing things in a new light. I have often said, you can’t build it if you can’t draw it.

    Good on ya for being out there on your own. There’s a certain freedom, but also imprisoning experience of going it on your own. Good luck on future ventures. Bob Glenn

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