My recent post about the postcard that Kurt Vonnegut sent me giving permission to reprint his poem "Joe Heller" reminded me of my favorite quote from him. I first saw it in a book called Word Redesign by J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham, about 25 years ago:
“If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.” Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952:59)
Hackman was one the leaders of a movement in the 1960's and 1970's in academia and industry to humanize work, in part, by designing workplaces and jobs that were less alienating and more motivating. The research and related guidelines that Hackman and his colleagues produced remain one of the best -- and most honest -- examples of evidence-based management I've ever known. For example, when the fad was at its height, and Hackman was renowned for being one of its inventors (and no doubt deluged with offers of consulting work), he wrote an article called "On the Coming Demise of Job Enrichment." He predicted that the movement he helped start would likely fade because the practices were being implementing badly and enriched jobs were seen as a quick fix that leaders could install like machines -- and then ignore after a short period of upheaval, when instead, redesigning work required constant attention and as well as a change in manager's basic assumptions about the role of people in organizations. Hackman especially emphasized in his writings, and still does today, that enduring and constructive change starts with viewing organizations as human and humane entities, not as machines.
P.S. Also, I would like to emphasize that, although some engineers do think the way stereotyped in the Vonnegut quote, I've been a faculty member at the Stanford engineering school for over 20 years, and most of my colleagues don't think this way at all. On the contrary, I've been part of two start-up programs (both encouraged strongly by our deans) in the school that devote special attention to the human element in organizations: the Center for Work, Technology and Organization and the new Stanford d.school.