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Book Review

Blood, Sweat & Tears:
The Evolution of Work

By Richard Donkin
Texere, $27.95

Reviewed By Fred Stahl

We have all seen people working for terrible bosses with low pay in abysmal conditions, but loving their jobs. I've seen hundreds of engineers in a huge open office with row after row of desks, and they can't wait to get to work in the morning. I've seen men and women working for managers they hated. Nevertheless, they worked hard with superb art and skill producing great and elegant products. Why? I never found a satisfactory answer.

This is the riddle Richard Donkin addresses in this remarkable book: Why do we work and why do we work so hard? Donkin is a columnist writing about work and associated subjects for the Financial Times since the mid-1990s. He came to see work as a complex economic, political, cultural, social, psychological, sociological, organizational and belief phenomenon -- the qualifying hallmarks of civilization that separate man from the other animals. Now he has assembled his insights and research into a book, which, unlike thousands of one-dimensional management books, has value precisely because it treats work as a complex tapestry interwoven with our lives.

Donkin's story of work starts in the Stone Age when two central aspects of work emerged: organization and earning. Fossil records show that men organized themselves for hunting hundreds of thousands of years ago. The evidence is also clear that there were workers who made stone tools beyond their own needs. Many such artifacts are found far from their mother lode, apparently carried by traders. Before they could write, people made products to sell and created the first wealth.

Once history leaves pervasive slavery and serfdom behind and employment emerges, the manager-managed relationship really gets interesting. Donkin gives us a guided tour of great thoughts on the social, cultural, economic, organizational and religious aspects of the relationship between boss and worker. We watch Abraham Darby create cheap effective iron products from his iron smelter at Ironbridge and evolve the idea of permanent jobs. The clock rather than the steam engine is the key machine of the industrial age.

Donkin shows us how a century ago George Pullman's vision of mutually beneficial cooperation between capital and labor ended in a tragedy of bitter strikes that left labor and capital in suspicious and adversarial relationships that still bedevil us.

I especially enjoyed Donkin's look at industrial efficiency. Fredrick Taylor gave us the idea of breaking work into its elemental parts and analyzing them to achieve best efficiency. It was Taylor who taught the industrial world to use the then newly invented stopwatch to make necessary scientific measurements.

The story of the genius of Henry Ford and his industrial engineers in applying the ideas of interchangeability and breakdown of work to automobile assembly has fresh insights in Donkin's book. While Taylor designed work to the pace of the worker, Ford forced workers to the pace of his assembly line. I've seen a lot of fuzzy writing about how Ford tripled the wages of workers to an unheard of $5 a day and gave them the wealth to buy his cars and launch the U.S. consumer economy. Donkin gives us the reality. Life on Ford's assembly line was hell. The first moving assembly line built magnetos. It went into operation in 1913 and immediately delivered an astonishing 30 percent increase in productivity. Ford's engineers rushed to convert the remainder of automobile assembly to the moving line, including the famous icon of mass production, the chassis assembly line.

Ford's innovation destroyed human spirits. By the end of that year, turnover approached 900 percent. The wage hike to $5 in early 1914 was simply a bribe to get people to work under inhumane conditions. The consumer economy was in fact a consequence of the dramatically improved productivity delivered by moving assembly lines. But what a price the consumer economy extracted -- and still does.

Henry Ford said that workers don't like to think and he designed a manufacturing system that didn't require it. In my view, Toyota's production breakthrough was that it again harnessed the minds of the worker. Just-in-time parts, defect-free flow and Toyota's other innovations in manufacturing practices enable workers to take control of production and achieve remarkable levels of productivity and quality. I wished Donkin had given us a deeper analysis of the industrial revolution kicked off by Toyota's Taiichi Ohno, but that is a quibble. Hopefully it will be his next book.

Donkin covers the waterfront of great men of industrial efficiency, Deming, Juran, Drucker and many others. At the end, he gives us his suggestions for grappling with the problems of work. But you won't find closed solutions for the riddles and controversies of why we work and the extraordinary relationship between manager and managed. We emerge with man's best thoughts about the mysteries of work. If you tire of the deluge of how-to books on management awash with metaphysics and anecdotes, Donkin's book is for you. You'll need the wisdom he culls from millennia of human history on your journey to leadership.