Design Management: Reawakening “manual labor”, or what Design schools are doing to address and appease the “doing” and “having done”

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Just as corporate competitiveness issues are more frequently dotting the economic landscape, where economists and politicians are perpetually, and somewhat in vain, setting up more Ministries, commissions and committees around “economic recovery plans” in a dire attempt to whisk Western countries out of what seems like a never-ending line-up of crises and get back on track with industrial growth models, how farfetched really is it to sit down and have a serious talk about “manual labor” as an answer, albeit a modest one, to the very slippery slope down which businesses in the Western world are sliding?

With all the drawing, fiddling around with paper, cardboard and handfuls of other materials that kids do every day at school, not to mention the time and energy they devote to the cerebral nourishment bred from “playing” with Legos or Meccano, enabling them to later design models or even their own room, is it really that surprising that they devote significantly less time to this type of “intellectual” activity during their college career? It is almost as if the recognition resulting from their “intellectual” one-off embodied a “be all-end all” status, and the mere idea of “working with one’s hands” were not only pointless, but degrading. Is it really that surprising that in France, in particular, the best students in Scientific disciplines turn their backs, once and for all, on the technological culture they acquired there within, as well as on all aspects of design and the product manufacturing process the moment they push open the doors to top Business schools? As the Head of Schneider recently shared, the leading Engineering schools no longer produce engineers, and graduates from France’s most prestigious engineering schools opt for the trading floors of the London or Frankfurt Stock Exchange over life in a factory. How surprised should we really be?

Since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, Scientific Management did not lift its iron fist in the pursuit to draw a clear divide between the intellectual work entrusted to the “elitist” class and manual labor allotted to the working class. Come the late 19th century, Taylor had tweaked his very own view and model of Scientific Management fueled by the necessity to clearly distinguish the side that thinks, models, sets down the procedures, and dictates the rules of “work well done” to a growing number of less qualified workers, given that their sole purpose was to apply the rules and not their minds. In response, design arose from the shadows to restore a bit of humanity to a rather warped sense of the mind and body divide.

This approach of a qualified, enlightened and competent workforce came to a screeching halt, extinguishing any glimmer of cerebral activity or any notion binding the thought process with a manual one. The end result was a skill-thirsty workforce. To fully grasp this belief that “using one’s head” was a waste, it may be helpful to go back in time to Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”, who became a victim of his own society. He gets “sucked into and spit out” by the very same Machine that his automated gestures nourish day-in and day-out. Another look at Roger Vailland’s 325 000 francs is also food for thought. Vailland’s hero, Busard, has his arm mercilessly crushed by the plastic toy machinery he operates daily on the assembly line, serving as yet another testament to human collateral at the expense of and in return for the perils of automation.

Scientific Management does have an economic upswing: lower pay for less qualified workers. That said, it comes with a hefty price tag, and emerging countries have caught on to the trend, and are giving the competition a real run for its money with even lower salaries, defying the rules for healthy competition and eliminating human value altogether. In the end, businesses no longer have at their disposal this level of skilled workers who not only reflect the very essence of creation and innovation, but also bridge theory (strategy) and practice (implementation) on industry front lines. How much longer before we wake up to the reality that industry in the Western world is shooting itself in the foot?

Recent research done on quality by these same businesses may be on to something with regards to solving this dilemma. Putting procedures in place, with the obligation of applying them, lowers the chances of those applying them of having to think. They also inhibit businesses’ creative ability. In the eyes of Quality fanatics, creating and innovating are synonymous with norm-bashing and crashing, and ultimately, breach corporate purpose and interest. Normalization policies have been beneficial to some businesses needing organizational insight; they have also, however, proven detrimental to others, leading them to file for Chapter 11 given the inability to change current models and innovate.

The “productive recovery plan” for Western industry may just come about by “taking matters into one’s own hands.” It would mean re-training teams and instilling in them a new notion of responsibility and recognition, and breathing new life into the age-old value of compatibility between the mind and one’s ability to build, design, assemble, put up and take down. It would mean investing in the power of one and the talent there within to design something from nothing. It would also mean revealing the multiple facets of innovation and the meaning(s) it conveys. This is why business needs designers. They don’t just think; they do!

To merge the “thinking” portion with the actual “doing” portion, the Compagnons French Trade Guild teaches us that “the hand is the mind.” No “Design-thinking” conference has ever changed or developed an activity or business, nor has it generated the slightest added value. Only those who take “matters into their own hands” move them forward. Designers are the catalysts, setting into motion the ideas generated during “Design thinking” sessions or other creativity-oriented conferences. Post-its stuck to the wall have never produced anything.

If I were a “politician” in charge of industrial development, I would do what I could to bring technology and manual labor classes at school out of the closet. I’d freshen them up by referring to them as “Design and Innovation” courses, and I would shine a long-overdue spotlight on those devoted to the matter and its transmission.

And I’d ask that Design schools take ownership in finding a way to accommodate both the “having done” and “doing”, keys not only to an efficient and effective partnership, but also to an industrial reawakening on our territories and of our resources.

So, what do you say we have that talk on “manual labor”?

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