Wealth of Nations
Since 1776, when Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, mankind understands the advantages of labour division. Adam Smith elaborated the example of the production of matches, showing that for one man alone it would be quite a lot of work to finish off just one match: growing trees, cutting them, chopping them in tiny pieces, mining sulphur, shipping it and producing the right sulphur mix, dipping the pieces of wood in the sulphur mix… Not to mention the production of a container to hold the matches and the stuff to light them up.
Yet specialized parties, Smith argued, can very competitively produce the wood-sticks, the sulphur, the matches, and take care of sales and delivery -together they form a intertwined network of specialists-.
Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
A few decades later, in 1817, David Ricardo sophisticated this of idea division of labour in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, showing that what really matters is the relative price of two goods. Every man, company or country should just produce what he’s really best at and therefor can do at the lowest possible cost. And dedicate his time and effort to just doing that, while purchasing everything else -even if theoretically we could make it ourselves-.
Both ideas combined may have been the major driving forces leading to the incredible growth of wealth the world has experienced during the last two centuries. Deeply rooting the idea in our minds, that never-ending specialization only brings us good. Leading to bosses handing over literally all support tasks -even shopping for personal goodies- to other personnel. And to medical doctors transferring even the intake process of their patients to nurses. And to specialist sports trainers for every detail of the game…
Lean & Agile
Part of the success of lean and agile, is due to a totally different driving force: that of empowered teams, where team players assume each others’ roles and tasks. The value of this is hard to grasp. It looks like somewhere, there may be a tipping point where more specialization does not lead to more efficiency. Apparently, at a certain point the cost of co-ordination, of dealing with hand-overs, change-overs, and start up time, is higher than the cost of doing everything yourself.
The secret is in the definition of specialization. One can specialize in many different ways: In the (routine) activities being done, in the position in the production process, in the product being made, in the kind of client being served… In lean we promote the specialization of unique products and clients: product families. Yet within these product families, most professionals should get an understanding for many different aspects of the production process.
This is even more valuable, when there’s no mass production involved. When we build a uniquely new product, artwork, tv show, urban development plan or piece of software. When every project is a one-off. When we can’t build on previous experience. When we just don’t exactly know what knowledge we will need. In all these cases, it’s worthwhile to work in multidisciplinary teams and to become good at everything.
But it’s even true in routine jobs. This is probably the case the world is not a static place. People can learn and improve. When we work in teams for specific groups or kinds of customers, all team-members together learn to become way more efficient than a group of specialists. This is learning which will not happen in individuals or individual specialists. Individuals keep their knowledge to themselves, are not forced to explain their way of doing things and by that to deeply understand it and improve it even further.
And this is exactly what lean teaches us. Lean teaches teams to become better every day. To really understand a production process, to share ideas on improving it and to share it between team members. In a way lean and agile are structures for accelerated learning, which bring even more benefits than the division of labour.