Greater task variety means no more standardized work

The resurrection of American manufacturing will require more than simply bringing back production to America. Global manufacturing is at the cusp of a massive transformation as the new economics of energy and labor plays out and a set of new technologies—robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and nanotechnology—are advancing rapidly. Together these developments will spark a radical transformation of manufacturing around the world over the next decade. The winners in the rapidly changing world of manufacturing will be those firms that have mastered the agility needed to generate rapid and continuous customer-based innovation. Steve Denning

I have often said that anything that is simple enough to be automated will be, and that any work that is merely complicated will be outsourced to the lowest cost of labour. But a funny thing is happening with manufacturing in the 21st century. It is becoming complex. Manufacturing today requires interdependent workers with initiative, creativity and passion. The new manufacturing workplace has higher task variety, which is based on a greater percentage of tacit knowledge and requires more informal and social learning. This is not Ford’s assembly line, nor is it based on F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management.
standardized work
The new manufacturing, like new businesses everywhere, will have fewer people. Computers and software are replacing people, especially information processing jobs. This is the new reality. There will be more work variety (for what used to be called jobs) because there will be more task variety. That means there will be fewer plug-and-play jobs. We will have to create our roles in the 21st century workplace. They will not be created for us. This is liberating but scary for generations who have tried to fit in to the existing job structure. Younger people seem to get it. Generations caught in the middle may find it difficult.

Community and organizational leaders will need to figure out how to adapt to the transition period, which will continue to see high employment while conversely witnessing instant millionaires who create the next mobile app. Times are changing, and we will need new methods to manage and organize work. Even those who understand this cannot see how much things will change. We are like the early generations that witnessed the power of the printing press, without understanding that it would lead to years of religious wars.

As Steve Denning concludes in his Forbes article:

Success in this new world of manufacturing will require a radically different kind of management from the hierarchical bureaucracy focused on shareholder value that is now prevalent in large firms. It will require a different goal (delighting the customer), a different role for managers (enabling self-organizing teams), a different way of coordinating work (dynamic linking), different values (continuous improvement and radical transparency) and different communications (horizontal conversations). Merely shifting the locus of production is not enough. Companies need systemic change—a new management paradigm.

It will require even more.

3 Responses to “Greater task variety means no more standardized work”

  1. Rick Ladd

    “Times are changing, and we will need new methods to manage and organize work. Even those who understand this cannot see how much things will change. ”

    My favorite part of this post, Harold. I believe it’s possible to see general themes and make some broad guesses at the direction these necessary changes will take us, but details are impossible to predict and there’s inevitably going to be disruption along the way. We’re in for a very interesting ride.

    BTW – As someone born in 1947, I find this extremely exciting. I just wish people my age weren’t radioactive to most organizations. I’d like to help with the transition.

    Excellent post.

  2. Jon Husband

    I’ve often reflected on what I called the “mass customization of knowledge work”. Not so relevant to automated and low-skill repetitive information work, but where interpretation and sense-making are required, I think that concept presents a good window on the approaching future.


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