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November 1, 2005

4 Min Read
Editorial: 'Division of Labor' revisited

MSnyder.jpgThe renowned Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist, is generally considered to be the first to provide a well-articulated description of the concept of the division of labor. This he did in his tome The Wealth of Nations, published in London in 1776, the year the U.S. Declaration of Independence was put together in Philadelphia. Both documents have proved to be extremely durable. Some will recognize Smith more for his concept of ?the invisible hand? in the economy, but that we leave for another day.

Smith gave a famous description of how division of labor worked in a pin-making operation. ?One man draws out the wire, another straights (sic) it, a third cuts it, a fourth points, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head?the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations.?

There is no question that the division of labor is often indispensable. Take, for example, the board of directors vs. the active pilots group of a modern commercial airline. If I walk down the concourse of an airport to a departure gate, and the gate personnel announce ?Ladies and gentlemen, we are honored today to let you know that Mr. Flyfleagle, chairman of Mugwump Airlines, will be at the controls of today?s flight,? I will wish the chairman/pilot well but I won?t get on that airplane. There are good reasons for some divisions of labor. I have not done a survey of how many airlines? chairmen are pilots. Even if there are some, they probably are not currently qualified to fly multiengine passenger jets.


An early precursor of the concept of division of labor is found in biblical literature, with the injunction against letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing (for the skeptical, see Matt. 6:3). The concept there, written almost two thousand years ago, had to do with not harboring pride or showing off while giving to charity, but the concept has long since gone beyond that. In fact, it was originally a positive thing for the right hand to not know what the left was doing, but now it is generally a negative expression indicating chaos or confusion.

The division of labor is now widespread in our economy, almost to the point of the absurd. I had the opportunity recently to ask an acquaintance who works in the financial services industry what it was exactly that he did for a living. With a combination of candor and irony, he replied to the effect that he had no idea. Since he is currently picking stocks and bonds for investment portfolios, maybe his work does depend more on luck than skill.

Now, this individual has an undergraduate degree in business and a Masters degree in Business Administration, both from respected Midwestern educational institutions. He also is a Certified Financial Planner, and has worked in both large public corporations and small privately held company settings. If he doesn?t know what he is doing, then maybe nobody knows what they?re doing. Surely the division of labor has gone too far when a worker in one office not only does not know what the person in the next office is doing, but is not entirely sure what he is doing in his own office. Mind you, this is not a matter of competence. It is a matter of corporate and economic complexity taken to the nth degree.


There is no question that we need divisions of labor, also known as specialties, in the plastics processing industry. However, my premise is that the division of labor has gone too far. We need to re-integrate the mindset, if not always the actual physical tasks, of our plastics processing environments. We need to know, to some reasonable extent, what each other are doing.

Suppose the chairman of a plastics processing plant were asked to start up an injection molding machine and keep it operating one morning until the shop foreman arrived. Could it happen? Maybe the example is far-fetched, but consider it food for thought. Both the chairman and the foreman might be able to do their jobs a little better if they knew more about each other?s challenges in the workplace.

Fair is fair. How have I sought integration in my work? For example, since editorial tasks per se are largely separated from the actual printing, I have tried to pick up what I can about modern printing. If I ever show up at the printer?s with the cockeyed notion that I am going to run the press, however, the printer will not be out of line if he sees me coming and bolts the door. If I go there to observe and learn, that is another matter.

Because tasks need to be divided, does that need to mean that we shouldn?t bother to try to understand anything that takes place beyond a 10-ft perimeter from our work place? I think not. With any luck, the left hand, figuratively speaking, might actually learn what the right hand is doing. By absorbing knowledge from those around us, let us learn and prosper.

Merle R. Snyder

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