Adam Smith’s Division of Labour

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Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Although that was over 230 years ago, the understanding of manufacturing still applies today. The ability of people to specialize in a specific task without the pains of re-adjusting and re-learning new tasks contributes to hasten the rate of production when people work together. It was true in the pin factories back then and it is true in the modern mechanical factories of today. Adam Smith relates increased productivity, value, and efficiency to the labor input. In this paper I will argue that Adam Smith described that division of labor contributed to the well being of all people and promoted equality.

The benefits which Adam Smith saw with the division of labor are increased production capacity resulting in an overall improvement in the lives of common people. It created a situation “destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people” [p2]; somewhat egalitarian in a way. He compared the accommodation of the frugal peasant to that of a European prince in that the accommodation “exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages” [p16]. A single worker is much happier when he can avoid new work. “[He] is seldom very keen and hearty” [p10] towards changing his task and when required to do so over a period of time he becomes “almost always slothful and lazy” [p10]. When one man can focus on a specific task the entire production process improves because of dexterity, time, and innovation.

Organizations in the business of production will see benefits from worker dexterity, reduced production time, and innovative processes with division of labour. Dexterity improves when a man performs the same simple task continuously and develops the rapidity of the hand movements of a specialist “exceeds what the human hand could, by those who had never [performed the task], be supposed capable of acquiring.” [p9] The production time required drastically decreases when you divide the labour. In Adam Smith’s examples the workers in the pin factory could produce 4,800 pins per person per day compared to about 20 if they worked independently. The time savings come from the elimination of changing tasks among the workers. The worker does not have to adjust his tools or move to a new location to start a new task. Along with saving time by specializing on a specific job, people were insightful when they focused, “naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing [their tasks]”. This lead to innovations that automated processes translating into improvements in the machines.

The human cost to division of labour when an individual performed the same task continuously is outweighed by the benefits described by Adam Smith. He discussed the “deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which [a man] is capable of performing” which is eliminated by division of labour. People will tire of performing the same task over and over again, however, their desire to stick to the familiar will outweigh those effects. Also when you put a price on the value of labour, a highly dexterous worker who is specialized in a given task will produce more value per period of time then new-tasking. This will enable them to receive more for the work that they do. In this day and age we can see how people desire different things in different cultures. In Asian countries for example, we can see more manufacturing occurring and employees of massive companies living, breathing, and even eating in accordance with what Adam Smith described so long ago. Japanese companies will employ factory workers, house them in communal housing, feed them, and even entertain them. They live their lives in line-ups and have one purpose. That is their individual task at work. However in western cultures we see that people are not as willing to settle with a singular tasked job. They seek diversity. This echoes in the number of career changes made in one’s life in the west. So the human cost is outweighed by the benefits, to a point, but more so in manufacturing, export driven countries.

I work for the Armed forces and we are always working in a team. Sometimes it seems so bureaucratic in the way we do things. For example, when I required a mechanic to fix my vehicle I had to submit a repair recovery request to transport. Transport then consolidated the requests and forwarded them all to operations. Operations then forwards to the base maintenance who then start the work order. The work order is received by the mechanic at my building who then starts the job ticket and begins the repairs. This was a very long and drawn out process because it took over two weeks for Mike to start the job. We eat lunch together and I could have simply asked him face to face for the parts and could have done the job myself. A qualified mechanic however, was required.

Adam Smith’s observations of the division of labor were accurate. He was correct in stating that the average person would be better off with increased production capability and the increased availability of goods for all. The production line has been around ever since and carries on to this day. There are some troubles with child labor and such but over-all things are working. He did not take into consideration the possibilities that exist with exploitation of employees who simply need to do one task and who are expendable. Adam Smith described that division of labor contributed to the well being of all people and promoted equality. With today’s export driven economies, availability of cellular telephones, vehicles, and housing we can see that this is definitely the case.

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