Division of Labor

When did mankind first form an economic system based on division of labor?  Was it in prehistoric times, as the New Yorker cartoon suggests?

Neanderthal plumber and his client are squatting outside the client’s cave, peering down into a deep hole that used to serve as his toilet before somehow becoming clogged up.  Considering the proposed repair, plumber slowly shakes his head: “Ooh, this not be cheap.”

Or was it the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, when an apprentice worked for years under a master’s tutelage, because he wasn’t able to pull up the right video on his smart phone?

The division of labor is obvious on a construction site:  the architect, engineer and interior designer submit designs, and sometimes manage the process of building them.  The general contractor manages the labor and materials required to transform drawings or CAD images into the real world, and a small army of subcontractors each specialized in a different trade:  carpenters, masons, plumbers, painters, roofers, etc.  There are players behind the scene who add support:  bankers, building inspectors, insurance agents, attorneys, etc.  And then there is the client, whose real function is to provide timely selections and timely payment (hopefully someone has explained that to them).  A well respected, high end general contractor shares an interesting story about communication among the different actors, or lack thereof:

An interior designer calls him to propose the remodel of an entire second floor of a well to do client’s vast house.  Work is to begin right away, and because the client is a busy restaurateur about to open his second location, the designer will personally oversee the construction based on his 8 by 10 sketches.  Being experienced and well organized, the GC drafts a contract outlining the terms of the build process, timeline, payment, in sufficient detail to avoid any misunderstandings down the road.  Once signed, the dust starts flying—the kitchen, the bedroom, the hallway all become a battleground.  Because the client has opted not to move out of the way of this chaos, acres of plastic and canvas tarps are deployed daily, and furniture is moved constantly.  The designer visits frequently to approve the ongoing work, and make a few changes—how about a bigger molding here, and reverse the swing of this door, and change this wall color (we should have satin finish, not eggshell).  The GC patiently absorbs all this, and writes a change order for each one, including extra price, to be submitted for approval and signature.  He gives these to the designer, who assures him they will be approved and to continue working feverishly to meet their impending deadline.

One morning, while moving the dresser in the bedroom for what seems like the fiftieth time, a stack of mail that has been piled high falls to the floor.  Picking it up, the GC realizes that most of this pile consists of his change orders, beginning from weeks ago, in unopened envelopes.  Ooh, this not be good.  Of course this leads to the large meeting with raised voices and finger pointing, not uncommon on construction sites.  And so, we are reminded that the increased efficiency of division of labor requires good communication, very, very good communication.