Article: In Praise of Craftsmanship: Past Perfect – Present Imperfect – Future Tense

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In Praise of Craftsmanship: Past Perfect – Present Imperfect – Future Tense

Given the fact that computer technology provides one of the most fruitful arenas for the independent craftsman, it is ironical that technology should threaten the survival of craftsmanship.
In Praise of Craftsmanship: Past Perfect – Present Imperfect – Future Tense

I was not happy with the picture I got of the lunar eclipse earlier this year. The moon was obscured by buildings as it rose over the horizon and, when it appeared, it had a hard job competing with the ambient light of the Mumbai skyline and was faint and hard to discern. To arrest the moon’s magnified motion, the ISO speed had to be set to such unconscionable levels that hopes for a noise-free enlargement receded till they vanished. Yet, to the people surrounding my tripod-mounted rig at the Gateway of India, I seemed to have achieved a miracle in extracting a blood-red image of the normally silvery orb. Many queued up with their cellphones to take pictures of my picture from the grimy LCD screen of my camera and were perfectly satisfied with the doubly-degraded outcome. The next day, the majority of images of the eclipse on the social media were no better than the second-hand ones taken by my companions of the previous evening and elicited no less satisfaction.

One of the obvious benefits technology has bought is miniaturization. Yet we should not overlook what the quest for the ever smaller does to our ability to judge

As I reflected on the clearly dissonant sets of evaluation standards that were in operation, I thought back to the time mine got moulded. I was a callow Tata Administrative Service Officer, not yet thirty, struggling with a suddenly enlarged job-role that I could sustain only because of the faith my mentors had placed in me. My guru in photography was Sumant Moolgaokar, the industrial genius who had created (not just invested in) more industries for India than any other man I know of. We shared a passion for photography and he encouraged me to show him my fledgling efforts. Every few weeks, after a night spent in my improvised darkroom, I would eagerly march to his corner office with my B&W enlargements clutched under my arm. Before any talk of composition or lighting or such refinements, out would come the old man’s magnifying glass and he would peer closely at my work with his sparkling blue eyes. I learned never to bring him work that failed the magnifier test. He encouraged the pursuit for ever greater precision and quality by gifting me roll after roll of Kodak Technical Pan Film – a miraculous ultra-fine-grain emulsion that neither love nor money could get you in India – and its paired developer, Technidol. 

The demand for ever higher standards and the encouragement, help, and resources to meet them was one of the secrets of Sumant Moolgaogar’s remarkable success. Nowhere was this formula more visibly demonstrated to me than in the nurturing of Telco’s (now Tata Motors) unique Master-craftsman scheme. The Master-craftsman scheme stood at the apex of Telco’s vast and incomparable skill development programs. So valued was it by Sumant Moolgaokar that it found mention when I last visited him as he was ailing at his home and just days before he passed away. Here was the head of India’s (then) most successful and largest automobile and engineering firm meeting the company’s head of corporate HR for what he very likely sensed was their last meeting and he didn’t speak about the senior management of the company, its prized research engineers or even the tree-plantation and other social programs so dear to him. He just said, "Banaji, look after my Master-craftsmen".

The true Vishwákarma

In the early Vedas, Vishwákarma (Sanskrit for 'all-accomplishing, maker of all, all-doer') is the abstract form of the creator God (later developed as Brahman) from whom all visible things emanate1. His transition from the ultimate craftsman-creator of the world to a deity remembered just once in a year (and that mainly in factories and workshops) as the patron of artisans and craftsmen is perhaps emblematic of the decline of craftsmanship that hurts us today.

There is a bill for skill and corporate India has not paid it for so many years that even the possibility of skill succession is fast disappearing

In the simplest sense, craftsmen are dedicated to good work for its own sake. C. Wright Mills describes the origin of craftsmanship well when he writes: "The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfaction of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment ..."2

Of course, craftsmanship continues to evolve and Richard Sennet describes this evolution beautifully in his recent book on the subject: "All craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree… Various studies show that as skill progresses, it becomes more problem-attuned…. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem-solving and problem finding…. All skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; …. In the higher stages of skill, there is a constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and corrective."3

It is this level of craftsmanship that we were aiming to create in Telco’s Master-craftsman scheme of which Sumant Moolgaokar was so proud and protective. We picked the most promising talent from a vast pool of skilled workmen, spent years grooming them in skills beyond their parent trade as well as through classroom instruction that provided them with the theoretical adjunct to what their hands were doing. Then they were assigned to progressively more difficult projects that required an extraordinary degree of hand-eye-mind coordination, sometimes in combination with brilliant engineers whose conceptualizations only these Master-craftsmen could convert to physical reality. Their compensation was no inferior to that of the best engineers and they were such a rare resource that their numbers were never limited by the availability of vacancies.

Master-craftsmen were, of course, at the vertex of the skill pyramid we created and the next layer consisted of other, more specialized craftsmen who, in their own trades almost equaled the masters. Then followed a range of other skilled craftsmen whose fixed remuneration depended on the variety and level of skills they acquired. It’s small wonder then that there was never a dearth of skill regardless of the complexity of the project on hand. This deep base of craftsmanship and technical skills was one of the core strategic competencies which helped Telco in meeting and beating challenges such as those posed by the Japanese Light Commercial Vehicle invasion in the ’80s and ’90s.

I hope I have not created an impression that craftsmanship is only limited to manual work. If I have, here is Sennet’s corrective: "Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship."3

The modern raft has no room for craft

Given the fact that computer technology provides one of the most fruitful arenas for the independent craftsman4, it is ironical that technology should threaten the survival of craftsmanship. The threats technology poses to craftsmanship are both more subtle and more serious than simply machines doing the work of people. 

While the validity of the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell5, has been successfully challenged6, there is no doubt that extended periods of deliberate practice are essential for any craft. Technology and "machinery is misused when it deprives people themselves from learning through repetition. The smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, instructive, hands-on learning. When this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer."3 In domain after domain, the ease-of-use that technology delivers takes away those long hours of meaningful practice that form the foundations of craftsmanship. As Victor Weisskopf, who had for many years been chair of MIT's physics department, was fond of saying to colleagues who showed him their computer printouts, "When you show me that result, the computer understands the answer, but I don't think you understand the answer."7  

We seem to forget that pride in the workmen’s craft was among the first things we killed with piece-rate incentives and increasing automation without a thought about what it would do to the interest the worker had in the task or the skills he could hone while carrying it out

The increasingly frenetic pace of modern life in general and the demand for output that is of just acceptable quality in commercially-run organizations are an equally great threat to craftsmanship. In a mass production manufacturing set-up, for example, little is to be gained by working on a component that falls within the specified tolerance. This is a far cry from the unending quest for perfection that is at the heart of craftsmanship. To make the point, I have taken the liberty of substituting a couple of lines in the opening of Davies’ well-loved poem8

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to craft perfect parts,

Following the dictates of our hearts.

One of the obvious benefits technology has bought is miniaturization9. Yet we should not overlook what the quest for the ever smaller does to our ability to judge. Perhaps if my companions at the lunar eclipse sighting (quoted at the opening of this column) had viewing screens larger than those yielded by their tiny smartphones, they would have been as strict as my mentor with the magnifying glass. It is the same in the aural space. Hearing low bit-rate MP3s through the tiny in-ear headphones that are supplied with smartphones hardly justifies the craftsmanship the performer puts into the music. 

Another recent development increasingly infecting India’s manufacturing sector that has serious repercussions on craft is 'contractualization'. Swathes of skilled workers holding durable employment have been cleared away to position easily replaceable, less-skilled contract workers. As a result, there is just no base of skilled people from whom to identify, groom and progressively elevate even moderately skilled craftsmen – leave aside the Master-craftsmen that gave organizations like Telco their competitive bite. There is a bill for skill and corporate India has not paid it for so many years that even the possibility of skill succession is fast disappearing. After all, skills cannot be transmitted from a ‘soon-to-retire’ generation of craftsmen to a ‘missing-because-contracted’ generation of non-existent workers. 

What is the cost if craftsmanship is lost?

I am not a Luddite bemoaning machine taking over the tasks people once held. That process is inevitable and, in many respects, welcome. However, if that evolution makes craftsmanship less valued and inculcated, there are tangible costs we incur.

At conference, after conference on Employee Relations (ER) I hear senior ER professionals moan loudly, "The young generation of workers today is so mercenary. Gone are the days when people did things for the pleasure of the achievement. All they want now is money". We seem to forget that pride in the workmen’s craft was among the first things we killed with piece-rate incentives and increasing automation without a thought about what it would do to the interest the worker had in the task or the skills he could hone while carrying it out.

The pursuit of merely adequate quality, strictly enforced through standard procedures, militates against innovation and skill development at the workplace

Undoubtedly craftsmanship, being a dialogue between the craftsman and the work, can be somewhat inward looking. Yet, curiously enough, because the focus is on absolute achievement and innovation rather than competing against other individuals, it can yield better teamwork. Linux stands as a testimony to multiple 'craftsmen' working together to create a world-class product. Substantial research bears out the fact that better teamwork is, in turn, a precursor to more successful innovations on a grand scale.10

As we saw earlier, the pursuit of merely adequate quality, strictly enforced through standard procedures, militates against innovation and skill development at the workplace. Sennet rightly points out that "To the absolutist in every craftsman, each imperfection is a failure; to the practitioner, obsession with perfection seems a prescription for failure."3 Perhaps the pressures of 'modern times' only aggravated a tendency to be content with 'jugaad' and 'just the minimum effort' in us. It may be overly simplistic to attribute India’s patchy track record in breakthrough product innovations to the degradation of craftsmanship and the attitude of "doin' things rather-more-or-less"11 but surely it is one of the contributing factors. It is no consolation that we are not the only country fighting this battle.12

The dedication to improving regardless of how capable one already is, the unceasing quest for perfection and the primacy given to the object being crafted for itself (rather than for the rewards it brings) are the hallmarks of a craftsman. It was also the credo of a crafter of leaders and a Master-creator of Indian industry like Sumant Moolgaokar. Perhaps that was why craftsmanship and Master-craftsmen were so important to him. It may also explain why he spent hours working with his own hands in the well-appointed workshop in his Khandala retreat. An even greater builder of institutions, JRD Tata, was another exception to the 'hands-off' culture of today. Here is what he wrote to someone enquiring about his hobbies: "I like to work with my own hands. I have a little workshop at home. I have got some machines. I used to work on wood and metal. But, now I work only on metal."13

“Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection”

Rabindranath Tagore wrote the line heading this section as part of his description of the heaven of freedom he wished for our country14. Political freedom we have long since achieved and each succeeding generation holds its head higher and higher. Ideas abound in the minds of the new generation for all the great things we can do as a country in general and specifically in business. Many of these ideas are inspiring and have enormous potential. If they are to be realized, however, we can do no better than recall the words of that consummate craftsman of music, Johannes Brahms: "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind." 

Notes:

  1. Rg Veda, 10.82.5.

  2. C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, Oxford University Press, (1951).

  3. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press (2009).

  4. Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral, and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O’Reilly Linux, (1999).

  5. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, Little, Brown, and Company (2008).

  6. Brooke N. Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick and Frederick L. Oswald, Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis, Psychological Science 25(8), July 2014.

  7. Sherry Turkle, Seeing Through Computers, The American Prospect, March-April 1997

  8. William Henry Davies, Leisure, Songs Of Joy and Others A. C. Fifield (1911).

  9. LCGC Editors, Thinking Small: The Benefits and Challenges of Miniaturization, The Column, Volume 10, Issue 11, June 2014.

  10. Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore, Innovation, the Missing Dimension (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, (2004).

  11. Rudyard, Kipling, The 'Eathen, The Seven Seas, 1896.

  12. Louis Uchitelle, A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox, New York Times, 21 July 2012.

  13. Tata Review, Page 24, Volume 19, No 02, June 1984.

  14. Rabindranath Tagore, Where The Mind Is Without Fear, Gitanjali (Song Offerings), The Indian Society, London, 1912.

Topics: Employee Relations, Technology

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