Assembly Lines and Respect for Work-Life Balance 


The assembly line is often credited to Henry Ford and the first Model T. While there were some great advances in the moving assembly line, the history of the division of labor go back centuries. An assembly line has multiple workers performing the same task, in order, to produce a result. In early days, a single craftsman would build an object or perform end to end work. Division of labor dictates that each worker does the same task, over and over, in conjunction with others, to produce an output. Think of early settlers chopping wood. Rather than two people chopping up a log, putting down the axe, picking up the pieces and walking over to stack them, one person chops and one person stacks. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, talks about division of labor.

Fifty years afterward, he said, “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.” Going back to 1104, the Venetian Arsenal was a place where division of labor could be applied to building ships. While there is a long history of division of labor, even going back to the specialists of the hunters and gatherers in early human civilization, it was the moving assembly line, that had a huge impact on how work was done. The Swift Meat Packing plant in Chicago was the “inspiration” for Ford’s installation. At the Swift slaughterhouse, pigs and cows were automatically moved to workers who would perform the same task on each carcass.  

While division of labor had been around for a long long time, it was the moving assembly line of the Chicago meatpacking industry that changed the game. The reason is that the worker no longer governed their own pace of work – that was now done by the speed of the conveyor belt. Automation had changed the game and in a sense, humans were no longer in charge. Henry Ford built on this concept, and while he paid a great wage for the day, workers were expected to keep pace with the machine governing their assembly work. 

Today, some workers face a similar challenge with the pace of work being governed by machine, but it does not come from a conveyor belt, but may come from cloud-based service alerts and product telemetry. While you may not equate the two, but while we’ve had a 60 year period of the rise of the creative class, and Peter Drucker coining the term “knowledge worker” we now have a class of worker who is back to working at the “pace of the machine”. 

Henry Ford understood, at some level, how much he could profit from the assembly line – and to give him credit for paying almost double the industry rate  - $5 a day in the 1910s. Many could argue that DevOps engineers enjoy the same benefit, making far more than their retail counterparts, but working at the pace of the machine is not something that has undergone the level of change since the industrial revolution.  

Many of us are captive to our mobile devices, waiting for the next dopamine-inducing social post – or an emergency mail from our boss. We work at the pace of these machines – but it is still possible to put them down, even if it’s hard. Other than the famed Andon cord, where workers can stop the assembly line when they see a quality problem, those on the line can not influence the pace of the machine. That is true for most of us today. 

It is imperative that managers and HR professionals metaphorically govern the pace of the machine. This can take many forms and here are some suggestions. 

  • Don’t send email after hours 
  • If people have to respond to service alerts, build a rotation program 
  • Build a culture of trust where people can push back or share personal priorities 
  • Develop people so they can do more than one job 
  • Build automation to perform repetitive tasks 
  • Coach and trust people to try new things 

The assembly line, particularly Henry Ford’s adaption of the Swift Meat Packaging version – changed life in a number of ways – for workers and consumers. The price of a Model T was within the reach of a much larger population – and Ford workers received a higher wage than their counterparts. However, unlike most jobs, before or since, their work was paced by the speed of the assembly line. As we enter a new world of AI and automation, there are some interesting lessons to learn about how we can co-exist with technology and make sure we move at a human pace and integrate technology into our lives on our terms. 



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