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On Auto Mechanics

On July 22, 2010, in More2Know, by John Sumser

the-old-auto-mechanic-on-hr-examinerWorking Yourself Out of a Job vs Being Worked Out of One

My good friend Jeff Hunter occasionally writes parables at Talentism. Jeff, if you don’t know him, is one of the great practitioners in our little corner of the world. Currently responsible for recruiting, analytics, operations and technology in HR at Dolby, Jeff is one of the few folks in the business who have played all of the positions. From technology entrepreneur to Recruiting czar, Hunter offers one of the deepest sets of perspectives of anyone in the game.

Recently, Jeff read Putting HR Out of Business in these very pages.

His response, worth considering for its wonderful tribute to the people of HR who deliver excellence, compares the HR profession to automotive mechanics. He tells the story of his mechanic Steve. Jeff has a complex relationship with the mechanic who knows the intricacies of automobiles in ways that are hard to imagine.

Jeff points out that the jargon and affectations of a profession are important markers for specialized knowledge. He notes drivers do one set of things whle mechanics do another. He wonders whether or not the ‘experts’ have created a big mess by focusing on the broken-ness of things.

Using drivers and mechanics as a proxy for line supervisors and HR folks, he asks:

“What if being a good driver doesn’t mean what I think it does? What if the experts have just created a big mess because they are so focused on how broken mechanics are that they don’t ever really ask what “being a good driver” means. What if a good driver is someone who focuses on core driving mechanics, handles stressful situations well and achieves their goal of delivering passengers safely to their destinations? My gosh, what if the experts, in their kind-hearted efforts to get me to be good at just about everything associated with cars, are actually making me a worse driver? What if there are people who have a real talent for fixing and building and designing cars, just like I have a real talent for driving them? Wouldn’t it be better to find people who are the best at all of those things, so I could focus on being a better driver?”

This is one of those fantastic cases where multiple points of view are accurate and important.

I remember when there was a mechanic on every street corner. In those days, they did all sorts of things. Pumping gas, changing tires, fixing flats, overhauling engines, calming children and smoking cigarettes. It always seemed to me that mechanics smoked a lot of cigarettes and couldn’t check HPI history via text like you do now. You could almost always buy a pack (particularly if you were under 12) from one of the guys at the gas station. Thinking back on it, I’m surprised that more mechanics didn’t die from cigarette ashes falling into gas tanks.

In those days, cars didn’t work very well. There was an unspoken conspiracy between the replacement parts brokers (the mechanics) and the automotive companies. Gobs and gobs of money was made because the entire system was broken.

Today, that type of mechanic is long gone. Factory mechanics are now the norm. You take your car to one of those places (either a dealer or a specialty shop). The specialists specialize because the tools required to do the job are so horribly expensive.

My car, a teensy little convertible, has a special spare tire that is deflated and comes with its own pump. Once you use the spare, it has to be reinstalled with a special piece of equipment. The same is true with brand specific computer testing and so on.

The old mechanics (who sound a lot like Jeff’s do-it-all kind of fellow) are lost with buggies and buggy whips. Outsourcing, at a consumer level has taken their place. The various functions, once performed at the gas station are now performed by people in clean uniforms who do repeated procedures.

Where did all of the mechanics go? They didn’t work themselves out of a job, they were disintermediated. That is, some of their work was automated; some of it evaporated (car quality kept getting better); some went to outsourcing, some was reabsorbed by the automobile companies with the best video production company in their quest for revenue.

The same thing has happened in medicine. All complex repeatable functions are performed by specialty units. The trend seems to be “if it’s repeatable, outsource it.”

It makes sense to have specialists do what specialists do, just as Jeff suggests. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to work yourself out of a job in HR. Find smart specialists who do the task routinely for other customers. Hire them.

From here, that looks like a view of HR as gateway. That’s certainly one of the important models for the future of HR. HR could become the place you turn to for excellence across the board, the keeper of the contracts. It’s small and hypereffective.

Another future looks like the gas station future. Take a good close look at the next gas station you visit, remebering all the while that this used to be the pivot point in the automobile service and parts supply chain. Today, the $100/hr mechanic (like Jeff’s mechanic, Steve) has been replaced by a $15/hr Twinkie and chips salesperson. You can still get the cigarettes.

Still another future moves HR into powerful, analytics driven value delivering gatekeeper role.

The point of working yourself out of a job is not to belittle the extraordinary work done by excellent mechanics. Rather it is to face up to the reality that the march of progress against inefficiency is relentless. All the happy customers in the world go away when a better car arrives.

On a final note, mechanics and drivers exist within an overall system. Their roles are shaped more by the system than by the details of their expertise. Neither side has to do anything for the roles to change. Progress takes care of that. Working oneself out of a job is the way that you become a part of the steam roller and not a part of the road.

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