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  • Jon Smart

(4) From Craft to Capitalism (Part 2)

This is the fourth blog post in a series. Also see (1) Introduction, (2) How We Got Here and (3) From Craft to Capitalism (Part 1).

It is important to understand where we have come from, to understand why we work the way we do, the context it has evolved in and hence what and why we might want to change.


Cromford Mills, Derbyshire, UK

Site of the first Factory System at scale,

and the start of the first Industrial Revolution


In the previous post, we looked at the introduction of the first Industrial Revolution with the opening in 1771 of Cromford Mills in Derbyshire, England, by Sir Richard Arkwright. The manufacture of cotton textiles was previously a domestic industry with the 'putting out' system. Families would spin cotton and weave it into cloth at home, as small multidisciplinary teams.


The opening of Cromford Mills changed everything. For the first time, there were up to 1,000 people working in a factory, with automated machinery and extreme specialisation, leading to a de-skilling of the workforce and reduced pay. This led to work drying up for hand-spinners and hand-weavers, leaving no choice but to join the factories, with worse working conditions, less pay and more monotonous work.


In the previous post, nine key aspects of the First Industrial Revolution were listed. We're now going to take a closer look at each one of these nine points which together represent a radical shift in society, the economics of production, and in Ways of Working. The changes in how people organised for outcomes in 1771, still influences how we work today, more than 250 years later:


(1) Automated machinery


For the first time at Cromford Mill we have machines which automated the production of cotton, powered by water rather than by people or horses. This generated more power, which enabled bigger machines. Arkwright, along with clockmaker John Kay, invented the water-frame in 1769, which enabled a scale of output far greater than what was previously possible. Spinning used to be performed at home with one spindle, now one water-frame alone had up to 96 spindles concurrently collecting spun fibres, overseen by 3 or 4 people, a radical step-change in higher output and lower cost.


The introduction of automated water-powered machinery at scale, marks the beginning of humans as cogs in the machine at scale, being subservient to the machines which ran 24 hours a day, as was the case at Cromford Mills with 1,000 people working two overlapping 13 hour shifts. This was a significant shift in organising for outcomes, compared to domestic cotton spinning or water powered flour mills, with at most a handful of people working together.


(2) Factories


We now have one of the first purpose-built buildings (i.e. a factory) designed around the machinery and the production process primarily and big enough to accommodate a thousand workers. Previously it was mostly domestic production or small workshops built primarily to house workers. 


Cromford Mill was five floors high, and 30 metres long, which was about as long as the timber could be to still drive the machines. The flow of value was from the top to the bottom. The raw cotton was taken to the top two floors where carding engines would disentangle the cotton fibres. On the floor below, drawing frames would further straighten the fibres and pull them into 'rovings', putting in a slight twist ready for spinning. The rovings were then taken to the first and second floors for spinning. The factory was designed around the production process and the machines with a continuous process from raw material to finished product at scale, running 24 hours a day, the beginning of mass production.


There were lots of windows, as naked flames from candles with cotton fibres and oil on wooden floors was not a good combination. The reason that the first Cromford Mill is today three floors high is due to the top two floors going up in flames.


Cromford Mill is the origin of the office block that you may have spent the majority of your life sitting in, spend time sitting in now or will soon sit in, which is effectively a modern day ‘knowledge mill’. Especially if you sit in a cube with walls too high to see over and have role based work passing!  


(3) Specialisation


For the first time we have extreme specialisation and division of labour, at scale. Cromford Mill grew to employ more than 1,000 people performing very narrow, repetitive, mundane tasks, not seeing the end-to-end flow of value and not seeing the fruit of their labour. There were a total of around 40 specialist roles, with work-passing between the roles. In the context of textiles this included roles such as Carder, Slubber, Doffer, Piecer, Scavenger, Spooler, Twister, Warper, Filler, Creeler, Overlooker and so on.


People were cogs in a machine, with no sight of the customer, no view of the value being produced, working for a master, as replaceable ‘resources’.


This is a way of working, which evolved in the context of repetitive, knowable, mass production, that has continued to prevail 250 years later, well into the Age of Digital, with narrow role silos, work passing between those role silos and the continued use of the word 'resource' when referring to people, which does not optimise for outcomes in the context of unique, unknowable, emergent work, with a desire to attract and retain talented people and ensure high levels of colleague engagement.


(4) Unskilled, low pay, child labour


The work was so specialised and narrow in scope, that it enabled unskilled labour. This led to lower pay and it meant that children could be employed, which was advantageous to mill owners, as children were small enough to fit under the machines, and were even cheaper than adults, with commercial profit being the goal. At Cromford Mill, 75% of the one thousand workers were children! Children would start work at just 4 years old.


It wasn’t until 1802 that the The Factory Health and Morals Act was passed making the 12 hours a day the maximum working hours in the UK. And it wasn’t until 1819, fifty years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, that the Cotton Fabrics Regulation Act was passed making it illegal to employ children under the age of 9. In reality these laws were ignored as there were no inspectors to investigate factories. By 1833 there were four inspectors covering all of the UK, even then parents lied about the ages of children in order to keep them in work and fines for factories were very low. 


In 1836, children organised themselves into the Manchester Factory Children Committee and wrote a letter to the UK parliament: 


“We respect our masters, and are willing to work for our support… but we want time for more rest, a little play, and to learn to read and write. We do not think it right that we should know nothing but work and suffering, from Monday morning to Saturday night, to make others rich. Do, good gentlemen, inquire carefully into our concern.”

Thankfully, in developed countries child labour is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, according to UNICEF, in the world’s poorest countries around one in five children are engaged in child labour, at the time of writing. 


As a reaction to the advance of technology, displacing skilled workers and reducing pay, there was a growing movement of people who would meet up to destroy the machines. The Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, named after Ned Ludd who had smashed up two stocking frames in 1779. The UK government moved quickly to introduce a new law, the Frame Breaking Act in March 1812, which made the destruction of mechanised looms a capital crime, and hence punishable by death. Peak activity was between 1811 and 1817, leading to the British government at one point to dispatch 12,000 troops to suppress Luddite activity. Approximately 60 to 70 Luddites were executed and others were transported to Australia.


(5) Working hours


For the first time the working day was determined by the clock rather than by seasons and daylight hours.


Prior to the Factory System, peasant workers would work from dawn to dusk, however there is evidence that they had around 5 hours of breaks, including a midday nap. The typical pre-industrial workday was not more than eight hours. In addition, the medieval calendar was filled with holidays. There were many religious holidays, saint's days and rest days. Leisure time in medieval England took up one third of the year. In France there were 52 Sundays, 90 rest days and 38 holidays (180 days, almost half of the year) and in medieval Spain holidays totalled five months of the year.


With the introduction of Cromford Mill work was driven by the clock. There were 13 hour shifts, from 6am to 7pm, with one hour of breaks, 6 days a week. On day seven, attending Church and Sunday School was mandatory, with fines for non-attendance. Workers had just 8.5 days of unpaid leave a year. Orphans from workhouses were apprenticed to factory owners, supposedly to learn the textiles trade. They worked 12-hour shifts, and slept in barracks attached to the factory in beds just vacated by children about to start the next shift.

Today, many people are still working longer hours, with fewer days off, than our pre-industrial ancestors, despite five industrial revolutions and leaps in productivity that we previously could not have comprehended.


(6) Working Conditions


Textile factories were dangerous, unhealthy and unpleasant places to work, with little to no legal protection for workers. In the UK it took more than 100 years, from 1771 until the Factory Act of 1878, with just 56 inspectors to cover 110,000 registered workplaces in the UK, before there was barely enforceable legislation for working conditions, working hours and the minimum age of employment.


Factories were humid as cotton thread had to be spun in damp conditions. Going straight out into cold night air led to many cases of pneumonia. The air was full of particles from unprocessed cotton which led to chest and lung diseases, such as ‘brown lung’. The deafening machinery damaged workers hearing. There was frequent strapping (being hit with a leather strap), iron weights were hung around children’s necks and people were doused with water butts to keep them awake. 


Fines were a common occurrence, with fines for talking, whistling, leaving the room without permission, not having a clean machine or being late for work. Some mill owners demanded that the overseers raise a minimum amount each week from fines. Accidents were common with children crawling under moving machinery. In 1833 at Manchester Infirmary in the UK, 40% of accident cases were factory accidents. 


(7) Autocratic management


With the move away from guilds, leading to a reduction in craftsmanship, from grandmasters mentoring apprentices, from the ‘putting out system’ with small domestic autonomous teams, to the rise in unskilled labour and mechanisation, to humans as cogs in the machine, we now see a new-normal of an autocratic behaviour, at scale. 


Autocratic managers exert individual control over all decisions with little to no autonomy or input by the people they are leading. An autocratic leader asserts absolute authority over ‘subordinates’, expecting unquestionable obedience. This is a dictatorial, follow my orders, do as you’re told, don’t think for yourself, command and control, master & servant behavioural norm. 


Fittingly, the job title of the managers on the factory floor was ‘Overlooker’. 


Each overlooker supervised 30 to 40 workers and often resorted to physical punishment, especially when it came to children. 


“The overlooker gave us all a bit of the alley strap. It used to knock all the bits of wool, you know all the waste, it used to send it under the frames, so when the walking boss came round it were all tidy you see. Oh it were a big alley strap and it were all leather, and if they didn’t behave themselves they got a bit of this alley strap.”
"Sarah Golding was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker, knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to her house...she was found dead in her bed. There was another girl called Mary...she knocked her food can to the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her and caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson, who was beaten till she went out of her mind. The overlookers used to cut off the hair of any girl caught talking to a lad. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of it than any other punishment for girls are proud of their hair." An interview with an unknown woman who worked in a cotton factory as a child (1849)
"If we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue." Joseph Hebergram (1832)
“I work at the silk mill. I am an overlooker and I have to superintend the children at the mill. Their strength goes towards the evening and they get tired. I have been compelled to urge them to work when I knew they could not bear it. I have been disgusted with myself. I felt myself degraded and reduced to the level of a slave-driver.“ William Rastrick (1832)

Thankfully, physical violence is no longer tolerated as a motivational tool for performance. 


Unfortunately, an autocratic style of managerial and leadership behaviour is still well and truly alive and kicking in many organisations today, including in the context of unique change. I, probably like you, have experienced working in organisations with this behavioural norm. The prevailing cultural norm is order-givers and order-takers, masters and servants. It is a case of don’t bring your brain to work, follow the orders, don’t question the orders or the order-giver and then go home. Repeat. 


When this master-servant, command-and-control behaviour has been the norm for years in an organisation and a new leader arrives with a desire to nurture a culture of empowered and autonomous teams, it is usual to see learned helplessness. Still the narrative is ‘Boss, what would you like me to do next?’. It is one thing to say ‘you are empowered’. It is a whole other thing for people to act with empowerment. In my experience the amount of time it takes for this behaviour to change is measured in years. 


(8) Commuter Towns: Workers Housing


Cromford Mill, like other water powered mills, was built in a rural area, with access to warm and fast flowing water which would not freeze over. This meant that as Arkwright and others built new mills, the local population of workers was quickly depleted. As per the advert below from 1781 large families (providing plenty of child labour) were encouraged to move together to the mills. 


Advert in the Derby Mercury, 1781 (source)


To accommodate this fast growing workforce, Arkwright built what is considered to be the world’s first industrial housing starting in 1776 in Cromford Village. This included a pub, school, chapel and village jail. The first street of workers cottages built by Arkwright 250 years ago, is North Street in Cromford which has been remarkably well preserved. 



Workers cottages, North Street, Cromford


The houses are three stories tall and would have been home for two families. The top floor was built as a workshop for hand loom weavers, with a row of four windows providing lots of natural light. Women and children would work in the mill and men would weave the yarn into calico in the workshops on the top floor, an indication of the evolution from the previous domestic putting-out system.  


Other industrialists copied Arkwright with Peter Nightingale, Jedediah Strutt and Thomas Evans building out the settlements of Belper, Milford and Darley Abbey in the Derwent Valley, UK for their employees. 


It wasn’t until seventy years later in the 1840s that weaving was also industrialised with the arrival of automated power looms. ‘Weaving Sheds’ started to appear in Northern England.  The word shed is a little misleading. These buildings were typically 1000m2 and would house 1,200 looms. They were initially built next to existing mills and subsequently were built standalone by investors or by cooperatives of former handloom weavers. 


The pivot here, is that at a large scale, people went from mostly domestic work, whether it was rural agriculture, textile production at home, or a workshop close to the house, to now living in purpose built housing and commuting to a large place of work along with thousands of others. 


Commuting from commuter towns


In this context, the DNA which we can trace from the first Industrial Revolution to today’s ways of working, is commuting from the suburbs or from commuter towns to a large metal and glass edifice in a business district (a collection of mills), which thousands of people sit in, five days a week for 8 or more hours a day. A common behavioural norm today is to be seen to be present, to keep the chair warm, to hang a jacket on the back of a chair, even if disengaged and spinning wheels rather than being engaged and passionately contributing. Being seen to be present assumes a lack of trust. In the author’s experience, prior to the pandemic, in knowledge industries, working from home was viewed to be slacking off. Being seen to be present is not that far removed from clocking in and clocking out, with a day’s fine for being late, as introduced in 1771. 


Some of today’s modern mills (offices) still have cubes which are higher than eye level, such that collaboration is minimised, despite a 2 hour or longer round trip commute, in a metal box, to sit in a large metal box, 5 days a week, 8 or more hours a day. 


With the advent of the Age of Digital making working from anywhere feasible, and prompted by a global pandemic forcing work from home for knowledge work, it’s good to see a new normal, which as a generalisation, is a mixture of working together in person for two or three days a week and work from anywhere for the other days, with in some cases autonomy for people and teams to choose which days. Clearly, it is important to spend time together in person to build trust, social bonds, to learn, reflect and communicate. Post pandemic there is a collective realisation that working from home does not equate to slacking off, that working from home can be more productive (especially for high focus individual type knowledge work), it provides for a more engaged workforce due to the ability to have a better work life balance and reduces climate impact with the reduction in commuting. 


(9) Humans as Resources: slave labour


Sadly, and it's important to note, the first Industrial Revolution relied upon and further fuelled slave labour. Imports to Britain from cotton plantations in the American South were virtually zero in 1790, rising to 50% of imports in the 1810s, 70% in the 1820s and to 80% of imports into the UK in the late 1850s. On the eve of the US Civil War in 1861, itself a dispute over the expansion of slave states in the US, raw cotton constituted 61% of the value of all US exports, with 70% of the total American cotton crop being shipped to England.  


The hot, humid climate of the American South, with large tracts of arable land, were ideal for cotton cultivation. However, rather than the cotton being tended by free people, instead it was grown and harvested by enslaved Africans. These people had been captured in their homeland, often by warring tribes in order to barter people for goods, had to endure a horrific, inhumane, passage across the Atlantic which would take two months or longer, and then were forced to live and work under brutal, degrading conditions. 


The growth in the enslaved worker population from less than half a million in 1789 to nearly four million in 1860 shows the growth in both the transatlantic cotton trade and the slave trade which it relied upon. 


Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world. . . capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”,

Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)


The first Industrial Revolution was both enabled by and reinforced a shift from mercantile economics to free market economics. This saw a shift from national accumulation of wealth, European colonies in the New World and government owned trading companies, to free trade, without national price protectionism and with private ownership of the means of production. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in support of free market economics was published in 1776, at the same time as the start of the first Industrial Revolution. 


The first Industrial Revolution took advantage of both the outgoing mercantile economy, with colonies as offshoots of a European nation, with slave labour and with lots of available land (often taken by force) and also the new free market economic approach with private ownership of the cotton mills in England, driven by profit making, at any human cost, for mill owners and the many intermediary merchants and brokers. 


Triangular trade was the result. Ships would set sail from Europe to Africa with manufactured goods such as guns, ammunition, alcohol and textiles. African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people from 1440 to around 1833. For each captive person, the slave traders or rulers would receive goods from Europe. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean. The same ships would then be filled with raw goods, such as cotton, sugar, tobacco and rum and sail back to Europe. Some merchants running this triangular trade made a profit on every stop.  This resulted in enslaved people harvesting raw material at minimal labour cost, to be exported to the colony’s ruling nation, which in turn fed the profits of brokers and mill owners in the industrial revolution, who would sell the finished product to traders who would use that same product to buy and then sell more enslaved people, and so on.  


Hence not only was cotton production a user of slave labour, the finished product was also used by traders to buy enslaved people. In 1700, 80% of British exports went to Europe. By 1800, 60% of British exports went to Africa and America. 


The implication for today’s ways of working, is the inhumane nature of production that we have come from, with slave labour in the US continuing until the end of the US Civil War in 1865. Slaves were viewed as property of their master, not as human. Literally, a resource, not even a human resource, to be traded. Living conditions on plantations were inhumane, working 15 hours a day, living in a wooden hut with dirt floors and being given barely enough food to stay alive. In common with the mills there were ‘overlookers’ who would whip slaves. In the mill, working conditions whilst not as bad as for slaves, were also inhumane. 


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The carry over to today’s ways of working


We have come from inhumane ways of working with people as expendable cogs in the machine. To a lesser degree this mindset has still been evident in organisations in the past few decades and in some cases is still evident today. In my experience, it is not uncommon for people, and hence, organisations, to treat other people as an expendable resource.


For example, to have: 

  • unsustainable feast-to-famine ways of working, with nothing to do, then everything to do, with role-silo big-batch handoffs with a tight deadline

  • unsustainable ways of working where everyone is working on too many things concurrently. Too busy being busy, to take time out to improve. 

  • an environment of fear with autocratic managers and a blame culture, where a red RAG status in a report is a mark of shame to be avoided, such that learning is buried until it’s too late

  • continually unsustainable ways of working, where it’s normal to work 70 or 80 hours a week with artificially created ‘deadlines’ and ‘drop dead dates’ (an analogy of death) which have to be met (in most cases no one will die)

  • tens of thousands of people made to reapply for their jobs as part of a top down re-organisation

  • hiring and firing in large quantities in the gold rush to outsource to lower cost knowledge workers in India, Central & Southern Americas, Eastern Europe and other regions   


An imperative for today and for the future is to create more humane ways of working, with empathy, sustainable working and high levels of engagement. It is not a case of generating value at any cost. We need behavioural norms and systems of work which are humane, which put people, and the planet, ahead of profit. 


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Elizabeth’s story 249 years later

[An update on Elizabeth's story from the previous post]


It’s 5:55am and an alarm is ringing. Elizabeth mumbles ‘Alexa, snooze’, listens to the smart speaker routine of news headlines, weather forecast and commute journey status before stumbling out of bed. She’s had 5 hours of sleep, due to working late last night to get work done to meet a project deadline. She just manages to squeeze her way onto the standing room only packed commuter train before it sets off at 7:01am, still before sunrise. The next time that Elizabeth taps her phone at the train station gate and walks home will be thirteen hours later, when it will be dark again. She is already tired from doing this for five days a week, year after year, sitting in a large glass and metal edifice, in a cube with walls higher than eye level, along with millions of other people on autopilot commuting into the forest of ‘knowledge mills’ in the business district. 


Elizabeth makes her way into the office tower as do around 8,000 others. She waits in the lift lobby for 20 minutes before being able to get in a lift. She has to tap her pass at the building entrance, in the lift lobby and at every door to get onto the right part of her floor. The firm has had intellectual property loss in the past and has a high degree of security. There are also private security guards outside the building due to frequent protests at the firm’s use of Artificial Intelligence replacing people’s jobs, the protestors dismissed as Luddites by Elizabeth’s colleagues. As Elizabeth makes her way to her cube, the silence is noticeable. "It's like a library in here”, she thinks to herself.  She is hungry but there’s two hours of urgent work to do, catching up on requests from the Asia Pacific region, before 20 minutes of respite to grab an almond flat white and protein bar from the vending machines. 


Elizabeth had started out on the help desk. As a Helpdesk Customer Success Ambassador, she had to maintain a cheery demeanour whilst dealing with rude, impatient and frustrated end users, some of whom insulted her. The workload was unpredictable and tenure in this area tended to be short with a high turnover of colleagues.  


Elizabeth is now a Business Analyst (BA) specialist in Technology. As a BA, Elizabeth has to elicit requirements from multiple stakeholder groups, usually from shadow-IT Product Managers sitting between ‘the business’ and technology. It is mostly async communication, via documents, email or instant messenger and sometimes via video conferencing. She’s not sure where most of the people actually are. They could be in the same building or in another country.  Since leaving the help desk, Elizabeth has not seen or spoken to an actual end user, as people in the Product Manager generally get defensive if anyone ‘goes around them’. And, despite knowing customer pain points from her time on the helpdesk, Elizabeth is not allowed to add or change the orders coming from the PMs.


As well as fielding new and changing requirements for the next annual release, Elizabeth has to deal with queries from the testers for the version of the product which has been in test for about 5 months now. The backlog of work sitting idle in Elizabeth’s queue grows by about a month, every month. Each year, following 6 months of top-down and bottom-up annual planning, the backlog is reset and it all starts over again. There is then a new set of ‘commitments’ to meet for the unique, unknowable, work with a new annual output plan with ‘drop-dead date’ milestones, put together at the point of having learnt the least, driven by features that have already been promised to customers.  “So long as I get the detailed requirements written up in the ticketing system and passed on to the developers as soon as possible, the monkey is off my back”, thinks Elizabeth. 


It’s getting towards the end of the day and Elizabeth is feeling tired from burning the candle at both ends, from being sidetracked by the stream of notifications on her devices, and from responding to Direct Messages at all hours, wanting to appear responsive. But she knows that if she does slow down on one of her many top priorities and fails to get the business requirements handed over to the developers as per the deadline in the plan, the IT Project Manager, who determined the detailed project plan without input from the team, will be mad at her. The Project Manager has a reputation for getting stuff done, even if that involves a public berating on the office floor for 30 minutes at the end of the day. “This person seems to get a kick from abusing her positional power. I wonder if she was bullied at school”, thinks Elizabeth, who finds the ‘no news is good news’ environment demoralising. Last week, when out on a rare BA team social evening in the pub, she asked some of her longer serving colleagues why they hadn’t left. “We are united by a common suffering” was the surprising answer. 


At the end of the day Elizabeth joins several million other commuters in the city, crammed like sardines into subways, trains and buses to make her 90 minute commute to her suburban home.  She’s home by 8:30pm and puts a ready meal in the microwave, before streaming a reality TV show to switch off. After eating, she scans emails and prepares her calendar for the same day all over again. “There has to be a better way of working. Is this it? I feel like a cog in a machine and I don’t want to be united in suffering”, she thinks to herself, before her smartwatch reminds her to go to sleep and Alexa runs the bedtime routine, dimming the lights and playing the sounds of rolling waves on the seashore.  It’s 12pm and her alarm will be going off at 5:55am. 


The year is 2023 and Elizabeth is 28 years old.


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Also see:


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Learning resources:

If you found this article useful, you might be interested in additional Sooner Safer Happier learning resources to enable you to lead with these behaviours:


If you want to explore your learning journey book a call with our team!


References:

  1.  Roger Clarke, ‘Saltaire Overlookers 1830 to 1914’, n.d.

  2.  Tim Smith and Olive Howarth, Textile Voices: A Century of Mill Life (Bradford Museums, Galleries and Heritage, 2006).

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