Saturday, January 08, 2022

Mourning Holistic Accountability

History is replete with misinformation.  For example, a lot of people are under the impression that Henry Ford invented the automobile. He did not.  By the time Ford got into the business, horseless carriages had been rolling along for sometime.  Some vehicles were electric. Some were powered by steam.  The gas-driven internal combustion engine was somewhat late to the game.  In fact, long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was considered to be a waste product of the oil industry, whose main product was not fuel, but lighting oil for lamps.  Midway through the 19th century, rivers in Pennsylvania churned with John D. Rockefeller's gasoline as it rushed along the countryside,

But that's not what concerns me here.  What really concerns me is Henry Ford's true contribution to the decomposition of the American -- if not the world's -- human condition.

To be precise, Henry Ford's real contribution to modern society was his revolutionizing the labor process.  Ford was the one who hired efficiency experts who pronounced his means of assembling products as costly and inefficient.  Their recommended remedy was the assembly line, in which each man on the line performed only one task.  The theory was that by specializing at that one task, each man could perform his task faster and at a higher level of output.

The theory proved true, and from that day forward, anyone producing any kind of mass-produced product adapted Ford's assembly line to their own production facilities.

History will tell you that Ford's innovation not only made his cars more affordable, but also raised the wages of his laborers to the highest in the industry (Ford was famous for rejecting unionization by paying his workers more than the unions demanded, a situation that eventually deteriorated under latter day management). 

What history doesn't mention, however, is the real cost of Ford's innovation, and it goes something like this:

Prior to his assembly line, any and all labor possessed a quality I call holistic accountability.  Simply put, it means that craftsmen owned their projects from inception through completion.  They conceived, planned, engineered, constructed and finished their products, taking care along each step to assure its integration into the overall design.  If a step didn't fit perfectly, the craftsman went back and made adjustments until it did.  It was only after verifying its integrity that he'd move on to the next phase of the project. Back then, products were "built to last a lifetime" and craftsmanship was often the basis of personal pride.

Ford's assembly line essentially obliterated all that.  By displacing labor efficiency with economic efficiency, each worker on the assembly line became task-oriented, doing only his job without much regard for its overall integration into the product as a whole.  The result, as you experience to this very day, was devastating to our society: In the wink of an eye, "a job well done" devolved into "it's not my job."

The atomization of the workforce is a direct descendant of Ford's assembly line. It's the reason why the guy in the produce section can't tell you where to find canned tuna fish, or why the woman at Window #2 sends you to Window #3.  Perhaps the most cinematic illustration is the moment in the 1993 movie Falling Down, when the fast food joint won't serve breakfast at 11:35 because "we stop serving breakfast at 11:30."

Need more?  Try getting a medical diagnosis without traipsing to a minimum of three doctors, each of whom specializes in something so narrow and focused that he won't commit to anything outside his own specialty. Hop on a customer service call, and if you can get past the automated menu, see how many people are required to "get you to the right department for that."

This is what happens to a society that ethically, morally, economically and politically disengages from holistic accountability.  Everyone stares at his own navel with no regard for the big picture.  Meanwhile, thousands of companies hire human resource directors who hire coaches and motivational speakers to unite the company -- because it isn't their job.

There's a reason why we attach value to descriptors like "hand-made" while we eschew terms like "mass-produced."  It's become the hallmark of genuine quality and holistic accountability.  It's true of every product you buy -- and even truer for every child you produce.


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