Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Git 'R Done! 04.03.15

I developed my work ethic working on farms. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t see it as a shaping experience. I was completely wrong. It has shaped how I prioritise, how I measure achievement, how I view work allocation, and not only how but why I engage in co-operative efforts. My view isn’t unique to farming; many industries requiring hard physical labour share the same perspective.

Most people haven’t worked on a farm these days, so I shall use the example of a circus tent instead. I’ve worked on them too, and most people have seen one, so hopefully it will make more sense.

  • The work has to be done. If the tent doesn’t go up, the circus cannot function. It’s not an optional extra. If the work is hard, you work harder. If it’s too hard, you find workarounds. But it’s got to be done.
  • The work has to be done to certain standards. The standards are fixed and based on practical considerations. If the tent isn’t put up right, it can fall down.
  • The consequences of mistakes can be severe. If the tent falls down, not only could  it break and shut the circus down, but people could die.
  • The work is hard and dangerous. Even the most mechanised and well-organised project still involves a high risk of personal injury. The risk cannot be either eliminated or farmed out. You have to accept the risk. You also have to operate at all times in a way that minimises the risk to yourself and others. Mavericks get people killed.
  • Innovation can be difficult because it is potentially dangerous. The system works and has been proven to work. Any change, however well-meaning, could have severe unexpected consequences. New processes are only taken on board if they are going to genuinely improve things. Innovation for its own sake is generally rejected. Wanna-be innovators who want to “improve” the system without having taken possible consequences into consideration are not appreciated.
  • Workers are necessary. Breaking workers is bad. Work allocation is therefore carried out based on ability, not passion. This often results in gender being a factor for the simple reason that women are statistically smaller and weaker than men. The problem isn't just not being able to do the work right now, but of the impact of doing work to which you are physically ill-suited over time. (For instance, I weigh 50kg. I can lift and carry 25kg easily. But the stress that puts on my body is infinitely greater than that experienced by a 100kg person – they quite simply have more bone and muscles than me. I am more likely to break. Over time, I will break out of sheer wear and tear. Hell, so will the stronger people, but their work life will hopefully be longer.)
  • However, because the most important thing is still getting the job done, personal ability is ultimately the key factor. Outliers are treated individually.
  • All the tasks involved in the project are essential. As long as everyone pulls their weight, regardless of their specific role they are all equally respected.
  • People who do not pull their weight are putting an extra load on everyone else. They are despised.
  • Achievement is measured by what is actually done. The tent is either up or not up. It’s either up properly or unsafe and unusable. There are no prizes for trying and failing, regardless of how hard you tried.

The list goes on. To me all of the above factors are so obvious that they are a non-issue. What I hadn’t realised until it was pointed out to me is that this way of doing stuff is hardly universal. These days most people in the Western world don’t get to work in environments that demand hard physical graft to produce tangible physical results. In fact, we’re culturally rather contemptuous of that kind of work, as if it were beneath us rather than essential to our survival.

For people who work in environments that don’t involve hard manual labour, my priorities and concerns often make no sense. The way I manage and evaluate each project or task is inexplicable and even iniquitous. 

For instance, to me job division is all about personal ability, because that minimises individual risks and maximises overall productivity. To them it should be about fairness and equality. To me it’s bloody obvious that if I’m working with a guy twice my size, he’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting and I’ll be doing things requiring agility and a small size, and probably writing reports and making tea: playing to your strengths gets the job done as efficiently as possible and hopefully leaves you unharmed to work again tomorrow. To my co-worker in manual labor, this arrangement makes obvious sense. To office workers, it looks as if I’m volunteering to do “inferior” tasks; I’m either being subservient or lazy.

Another major stumbling block in communication is about “achievement”. The way I see it, if whatever you’ve done doesn’t work, then you’ve not achieved. It’s a shame, but regardless of how you tried and how much you cared, you just haven’t achieved. My success isn’t measured by effort or by the intensity of feelings on the subject, but by results.This affects how I evaluate absolutely everything: work, parenting, relationships, self-defence, etc.. I think I’m being pragmatic. People used to achievements that only exist on paper tend to treat me as if I'm ruthless.  (Writing this just now, I realised how the people I like the best in the world of self-defence, those who are happy to go “this just dun’t work” and see this as the overarching factor, the only nail that particular coffin needs, also have physical labour backgrounds… Hmm.)

Even in the same industry, there is often a stark contrast between the perspective of the people who sweat and potentially bleed for the job and those who just evaluate their performance from behind a desk. To a worker who’s seen and heard a co-worker mangled by machinery, that accident is not a statistic. A 1% reduction in risk is not just a figure to balance against a budget; it is a person screaming in pain, a life that may be changed forever or cut short. A 5% increase in workload may be the difference between becoming a physical wreck in your youth and reaching a healthy, ripe old age. To those who feel their physical impact, these kinds of numbers are not theoretical entities.

This doesn’t apply just to people who are willing to cut corners for profit. Even those with good intentions can do untold damage, either to the overall system or to the individuals they are seeking to help. For instance, I have been unable to apply to certain jobs because I didn’t meet the physical requirements. I was quite simply too small and/or too weak. From the comfort of an office, that could look as a blatant case of discrimination. However, had I tried to do the work, not only I would have performed very badly but I would have undoubtedly caused serious damage to myself, and maybe to others. The restrictions are put into place for utterly pragmatic reasons, reasons that someone sitting in the comfort and safety of an office, can't – or perhaps refuses – to see.

Now that I’m aware of the differences, a lot of my problems make sense. I have been assuming that everyone was looking at the world the same way. Like most assumptions, it was plain silly. This may explain why, while I’ve been very good at desk jobs, I’ve been very bad at getting along with other people who did them. I still need to work out a way to explain my point of view to those who don’t share it, but at least now I know that I need to try.


Tony said...

Great post. Thanks for pointing this out.

God's Bastard said...

A couple of very interesting points have been brought up post-production:

1. Some of the limitations are created by the system: size of tools, size of material packs, etc. For instance, I can't lift a 50kg bag of cement, but two 25kg bags are no problem.

My response is yes, kinda. For loose materials, yes (though it increases packaging and possibly transport costs). But I can't use a fence post half the size in order to cut down on weight. Tools are generally built to do the job they need to do, too.

2. Two smaller people can do the work of one big person. Or one smaller person can do the same work, but it takes longer. Hey presto, job still gets done.

My concern here is not capability, but productivity. If it takes me twice as long to produce as much, should I get half the wage? That is a form of "equal pay for equal work", after all... but I don't think it would go down well.

There are also time-frame issues. Some jobs need to be done within a certain time span. Putting up a circus tent is one of them, but the same applies to all sorts of things, like preparing a steak for a customer.

(I must admit to being totally biased as, after 20 yrs of keeping up with burly men at work, my back finally rendered the ghost. I spent the fall struggling to do epic stuff like putting shoes on, walking up stairs, filling the kettle, going to the loo... It's a point lesson I shan't forget in a hurry.)

Anonymous said...

Great essay. I remember being astonished (and very relieved) when a friend I worked with pointed out to me that my fury and disappointment and wild frustration (with the large company we worked at) was a result of me not understanding the two types of folks working there. I was being driven mad because of "them" (most folks) not even *noticing* that all their org chart redesigns and planning meetings and proposals were resulting in NOTHING getting done (nuclear facility cleanup -- kinda important, eh?). I was, metaphorically standing at the output end of the "machine" (that was the company) and nothing was coming out! SO much money and effort and time and thought spent, and nothing was produced! My friend pointed out that to "them": all that stuff they had done (that produced nothing) WAS doing something.

The pack needs to catch dinner. The prey (oops, the herd... {wink}) is okay just rearranging the plants in the field! Pack mates have jobs and must do them to eat; the herd eats anyway, so if nothing gets done? Okay-fine. (For them!)