Book Review – The Mind at Work: Valuing the intelligence of the American Worker

Guest post by Michael Godfried: planner and policy analyst in Washington State and Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

Mike Rose is a wonderful writer with a host of books to his name. The Mind at Work: Valuing the intelligence of the American Worker (2004) looks at the mental dimension of work that is often dismissed as mindless. Rose provides vignettes of waitresses, hair stylists, plumbers, construction workers, welders and auto industry assembly line workers. This nuanced and scholarly book reads like a fascinating novel. To read his vignettes is to follow the wisdom of Marcel Proust in looking at world of work around us with fresh eyes.

Mike Rose is a faculty member at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Although he has a doctorate, he knows what its like to come from the other side of the tracks. He is the son of Italian immigrants born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the shadow of the once great Pennsylvania Railroad manufacturing yards. His mother, a waitress, worked double shifts to put food on the table. Due to mixed-up test results, Rose was put on the vocational track in High School. When the mistake was finally discovered, Rose was far behind and struggling to catch up.

As a man on the boundary, Rose has kept one foot inside of academia and one foot in the world outside of the ivory towers. No stranger to community service, he has run job training and literacy programs for low-income communities and returning Vietnam Vets. Rose has traveled the country and conducted countless interviews that he has then brought to life in a series of compelling books. Like Dr. Deming, Professor Rose is not afraid to move between academia and the world outside and seek a broader systems view.

Rose notes a historic distain for those who make a living by doing physical work. We find this legacy in the Ancient Greek philosophers, who despite their many merits, looked at artisans as mentally warped. The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) cut a tragic split between active mind and machine-like, bodily matter. Frederick Taylor’s (1856-1915) Scientific Management depicted factory workers as uncouth lumps of clay to be shaped to fit industrial ends. Today, Rose says, we talk about work ‘above the neck’ and ‘below the neck.’

Rose’s portrait of his Uncle Joe Meraglio may be most interesting for those who followed Dr. Deming’s work in the auto industry. As a boy, Joe toiled in the dirty, loud and dangerous railroad yards. After WWII, he worked for General Motors (GM) in the Youngstown and Lordstown factories. He rose from a wet sander on the assembly line to a foreman and then to a superintendent, retiring in 1987.

Rose describes his Uncle’s work on the assembly line starting out: “It was hard, low tech labor – basically a piece of sandpaper and a water hose – and, like all assembly line work, called for an economy of movement, working smart to hold exhaustion at bay. Though it was classified as unskilled, there was definitely a technique to wet sanding.” (p. 128)

Although lacking formal education, Joe was bright and availed himself of whatever training opportunities came his way. He took the initiative to improve several assembly line processes despite a GM company culture that could hardly be called ‘empowering.’ As a foreman, Joe rotated his staff through a variety of positions to vary the otherwise repetitive routines of assembly line work.

Knowing of Dr. Deming’s high regard for “willing workers”, he would likely have enjoyed The Mind at Work, not to mention a conversation with Joe Meraglio. Unlike Taylor, Dr. Deming did not see workers as lumps of clay. Dr. Deming saw employees, with rare exception, as wanting to take pride in their work and make a contribution. He strongly supported training, learning and involving employees in improvement efforts like those implemented by Joe Meraglio at GM.

Dr. Deming writes in Out of the Crisis:

“The greatest waste in America is failure to use the abilities of people. One need only listen to a tape of a meeting with production workers to learn about their frustrations and about the contribution that they are eager to make.” (p. 53)

Many popular writers on business management tend to idolize top leadership and put down the work force. Deming’s views were quite different. He saw most problems as being systemic. Top leadership is responsible for system design. In the 1980s, he excoriated top management for their failures and their scape-goating of employees. He recounted stories of employees who saw problems on the factory floor but were either ignored or faced with dismissal for pointing them out.

Deming’s distain leaps from the pages of Out of the Crisis:

“ ”Our troubles lie entirely in the work force.” The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or in service if only our production workers would do their jobs in the way they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system, and the system belongs to management.” (p. 134)

Although Dr. Deming did not talk explicitly about the cognitive dimension of manual work, that notion seems to be implicit in his writings. Like Professor Rose, Dr. Deming affirms the agency and contribution of workers and their ability to learn and improve. In his closing paragraph, Rose recalls a term of key importance within the Deming philosophy:

“To affirm our capacity as a people is not to deny the obvious variability among us…To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor…in the classroom, the garage, the busy restaurant, vibrant with desire and strategic movement. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination.” (p. 216)

Please checkout Mike Rose’s website that has interviews, blog posts and links to his books.

Read an interview with Mike Rose on the 10th anniversary of the release of The Mind at Work.

Listen to an interview with Mike Rose on the topic of The Mind at Work.

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