Process, learning & the division of labour

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Craig Reid

With every piece of new work or indeed any new experience we undertake in our lives we go through a process of learning. We may watch the task, repeat the task, read about the task - there are many different ways of learning how to do something and a thousand scholarly scientific textbooks that will tell you all about it.

But why is this relevant to process? The answer is simple - the benefits of process are fundamentally based on the way humans learn.

In a former life I was a commis chef. One day I was given a task to make the tomato concasse for one of the dishes. The chef showed me how to do it and I repeated it after him. "Good" said the Head Chef, and proceeded to give me a bucket of tomatoes to turn into concasse. So I started to make the concasse – I took the first tomato, chopped it in two, scooped out the seeds, pressed it flat, chopped the middle out and pressed it flat then diced the tomato.

Learning is fundamental to everything we do

Half an hour later I felt the burning eye of the chef looking at my paltry pile of tomato concasse. "NO, NO, NO!" he said and proceeded to show me the error of my ways. "First chop all the tomatoes, then scoop out all the seeds, then press them all flat, then dice them ALL!"

I didn't realise it at the time but this was my first real-life lesson in the benefits of process. As I did each step in turn I found myself speeding up dramatically. The first few I did were slow as I got my technique right, but after that I was flying, and in no time I was finished my bucket of tomatoes and was feeling very pleased with myself (until I was given a bucket of potatoes!)

What I had replicated was the concept of functional design - the same concept that was the basis of the industrial revolution. If I had, for example, a tomato concasse factory I would probably have a team that would put the tomatoes into buckets, another team to chop the tomatoes, another team to flatten the tomatoes, etc.

When we split tasks into functions we break them down into simpler more easily understood parts. As they are simpler to understand the learning curve is shorter; workers can learn to do each task quickly and become very fast at doing the tasks whilst maintaining quality.

Conversely, if we have multiple tasks performed by one person the complexity of learning becomes greater and it is slower to complete the overall process - we introduce multiple learning curves within the process.

I would also argue that when each learning curve is repeated simultaneously there is greater memory retention than when multiple learning curves exist.

Back in 1776 a very canny Scotsman, Adam Smith talked about this exact phenomenon in his famous book, "The Wealth of Nations". He talked about what he defined as the "Division of Labour" - what we call functions today – and he used the example of the making of metal pins to demonstrate the benefits of the division of labour.

Adam Smith was right and it became the basis of how we do work today - functions designed to complete specific tasks. But as companies, products and marketplaces became more complex and segmented, so became the need to have more complex and specialised functions within organisations. As process people we are now all acutely aware of the challenges that this brings for organisations to manage the flow of work across these functional specialities.

The division of labour and the specialisation of work functions provided a totally new way of working and had a major role in the industrial revolution - but it has now become both a blessing and a curse for organisations. Now and into the future the ability to manage processes across increasingly complex organisations will become imperative.


First published on Reprinted with permission.