The Social Organization of Structural Stupidity

There is much of value and much at stake in the findings of those who research in the sociology of work. What is to be made; who is to get a job; the conditions of labor in the workplace; how profits are to be defined and to be shared out as well as the degree of social solidarity ...all are questions of great importance to workers, consumers, and society alike. In capitalist societies, owners and managers give most of the answers to questions such as these.

If we define intelligence as the capacity of a living system to read out data from its environment, manipulate it and adjust behavior in terms of its survival goals, then the task of the industrial sociol- ogist is to generate an Intelligence Quotient for the shops, stores, factories, mines, mills and farms in which raw materials are produced altered, combined, and distributed. We can call this measure of intelligence, S.O.I.Q.; it is not pronounced 'suck.'

This mini-lecture reports on my observations of the social organiz- ation of work at an automobile factory in the Midwest. In this version I have changed the names of persons and places to protect the people concerned. I have two major sources of information: my own obser- vations and, as well, an interview with a Consulting Engineer who had been called in over the past three years often enough to collect some- thing like $250,000. We will call him, Mel. Mel is a central figure in all this and the ad hoc solution to the structural stupidity built into the work rules and roles at the auto plant we visited.

[Mel and I had been friends in high school about a hundred years ago; we were reprising a trip we had made as teen-agers. I got to see him doing what he does best; he got to see me give a couple good lectures at Texas Woman's University a week or so later. During our trip, I had opportunity to dig deep into the social organization of the plant in pursuit of information about the inability of the auto plant [we will call it the Gramford plant; it could have been Ford, G.M. or Chrysler...all three produce under similar conditions]. Mel laid out the problem solving techniques used at Gramford. I took his insights and added my own to locate the Social Sources of Structural Stupidity at the plant.

There were two problems for which the Engineers at Gramford called Mel in to solve. Both involved large CNC's which were not working. A CNC is a computer/numeric controlled milling machine. The two in question had been built by a Michigan firm; Mel had went to work there after his own machine shop had gone under in the 70's as Japanese cars changed the economy of auto production in USA. Mel started out as a sort of handy-man; within months, he had mastered the computer codes and other functions of these huge, million dollar machines and was sent out as Service Representative to all factories which bought CNC's from his company. Mel had taken an apprentice- ship at GM Tech so he knew hydraulics, electricity, metals, trig, and all the various skills in milling metal parts. This holistic set of skills became important as a structural solution to organi- zational stupidity: Engineers with advanced college degrees knew theory and practices each their specialty but no one at Gramford knew the whole machine well enough to a) diagnose the flaw nor b) fix it. In the eight hours Mel was there, he got both machines working; they had been idle for a week. Gramford had at least 30 well trained engineers standing around arguing about what was wrong and what to do. One machine was locked up and simply would not move: it could have been the motor [for which the Maintenance Engin eers were responsible. It could have been the metal safety pins in which case, Tool Engineers were responsible. It could have been wiring in which case, Elect Engineers were responsible or it could have been the computer program in which case Process Engineers were responsible. This gives us our first clue about the structural sources of stupidity.

A. The Technical Sub-division of Labor. Most people in management science and in social organizational theory agree that the technical division of labor improves production; quality and quantity while it lowers cost. That well may be true. However there were two condi- tions at Gramford which rendered it invalid as a principle for the social organization of work.

1. The sub-division of work is a political act; it is not build upon a natural system of categories as modern phenomenologists would have it [Vide previous lectures on Phenomenology]. The arbitraty division of a complex whole means a loss of the complex interactions which emerge from that interaction. Mel could see the wholeness and repair the machine...specialists could see only the separate functions [again arbitrarily defined] and could not focus on the problem.

To illustrate: one machine was supposed to mill a hub for the axel. It did not meet specs. Each of the specialist engineers found nothing wrong with their part of the machine. Mel knew, from experience that a toll in motion tended to remain in motion; the cutting tools were over-shooting the angles and curves of the hub and were making cuts deeper/longer than the computer program called for. The motor was all right; the machine was set up correctly; the hydraulics were working; the parts were not worn; the computer program was technically correct. Mel told the computer programmer to compensate for the in-motion overshoot of the tools. That brings us to the second problem in the technical div/lab.

2) in the ordinary course of events, specialist engineers do not have a lot to do. Everything works well so they sit around. Man- agement sees them sitting around and thinks to reduce the labor force and thus cut costs. At Gramford, there were enough engineers to deal with the average number of problems but not enough to deal with above average problems. Gramford had just bought 100 more of these machines; they needed computer programmers...there were only a few people at Gramford who could do it so each programmer had to hurry. To follow Mel's suggestion, the Computer Programmer, [we will call him Bill Blue] did not want to re-write the program. It had been written at the shop in which it was made; to re-write it would take an hour; Blue was stressed from the demands made on him so did not do what Mel, as consultant insisted. Mel had to call in Cletus Jones, the Tool Engineer Supervisor to get it done.

The Social Division of Labor: Superimposed upon the technical divi- sion of labor were two social divisions of labor. Each added complex- ity and thus uncertainty to the productive process. Each was a social source of structural stupidity and, thus, lowered the capacity of the workers at Gramford to solve problems...again, Mel was the structural solution to this social division of $500/1000 per day.

A. Gramford was divided into two divisions: the Production Division and the Support Division. The production division bought the CNC's and operated them. The Set-up man and the Machine Operator worked in Production. If anything went wrong, they had to call across this social division to get the machine repaired. This interferred with the easy and quick repair of machines.

1. Purchasing tried to minimize costs; they bought machines from several companies...Mel knew construction details of three compan- ies in Michigan and knew how they worked. Other factory reps knew machines from other sources; no one knew all the machines. With all their training; as good and as bright as each tool engineers, each maintenance person, each computer programmer or other tech- nician in the Support Division, none could know all about all. Its a bit like trying to find a mechanic who can repair all parts of all cars; only Flick and Flack could do that.

2. In order to get a machine repaired, the foreman in Production would have to call in one of the skilled trades in the Support Division...if he knew which one to call in. In the case of one of the CNC's, the foreman called in several in sequence...then all of them waited days for Mel to come in. This slowed problem solving down to a snail's pace: they knew Mel was not available but were able to call him in anyhow...along with me.

The social division of labor was itself greatly sub-divided; I won't go into the Table of Organization other than to say it subtracted S.O.I.Q. points from this system.

B. Gramford also had a social division of labor involving Union- Management. Given the conflict built into worker/owner relations, this social division, from the point of view of labor, made good sense. From the point of view of management...and of problem- solving, it slowed down the problem-solving process.

1. In order to protect jobs, workers in one of the other div/lab lines could not do the work of another...even though s/he knew what to do. Electricians could not change a motor. Work rules required that only Maintenance personnel could change a motor. A motor had burnt out on one machine. Mel and the Electrical Engineer, call him Sparky...could easily pull the motor. They called Maintenance and waited around...finally, Sparky handed Mel a wrench. Mel pulled the motor. Bad mistake. A Set-up d him and reported him to the Union Rep.

We spent an hour after lunch going through a Grievance Proce- my good luck, I got to sit in on it. The Union Rep, call him Huge Grant [he was hugh]...was adamant; Mel could not pick up a tool. It was a near thing; the Union Rep could have sent Mel packing...later, Mel said the only reason he didn't was because I was much for unobtrusive research.

Had Mel been expelled, the machines and all their workers would have set idle for days more...and, with J.I.T., this could have meant that assembling factories elsewhere would have to close down...JIT= Just in Time...a supply practice which reduces the cost to other divisions in the parent assumes that a lot of things will go right.

This rule preventing Mel sounds stupid but, from the experience of union workers, management would be able to destroy the union if it could bring in outside workers to do the jobs that union workers on the spot could do...another source of structural stupidity...endemic to conflict work processes.

In all this, a lot of bright, fdly, competent people are put at a great handicap by the structural stupidity brought about by, first of all, the technical division of labor and, second, by the social division of labor. Then when one understands all the interactions bet- ween these divisions of labor; technical and social, one can begin to ground a theory of stupidity/ is not always located in the brain case of theworkers and management; it is not always measured by paper and pen tests; it does not always take the shape of a bell curve but it is a factor in the life and death of public and private companies.

C. There were other examples of structural stupidity I saw at Gramford. However, I have exceeded my arbitrary work quota for this lecture [200 lines] and besides, it is time for my coffee break...union rules permit me to have one now.

Work hard, do well. TR