Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Division Of Labour

On recent travels, I've started to pick up a series of books, as in-flight entertainment, that entitled "50 ..... ideas you really need to know", where the "..." is basically any topic you can think of 50 odd concepts to talk about and explain them in a short "scratching the surface" kind of way.

Superficial, maybe, but entertaining, certainly. In this manner, I am now the proud owner of such a book on Philosophy[1], Mathematics[2], and, most recently, Economics[3].

One of the concepts the Economics book touches upon, is the "Division of Labour". In the book a couple of examples are used, like a pencil-factory (which apparently was one of the concepts that played at the time of the idea's conception), or the famous Model-T Ford production-line. However, nothing works quite as well to bring home a concept than really seeing it in action, first-hand...

Two of the cities I've visited in the last couple of months were Zurich, Switzerland, and Cairo, Egypt. The exact hotels where I stayed don't really matter, but a function of these hotels does; the housekeeping service.

In both cities I was staying over a weekend, so it happened that I was "in the room" when housekeeping came calling. Now, usually I don't like being around when they do. There's something very disturbing about other people cleaning up my mess around me. Generally, if this happens I go down to the lounge, or lobby, with a book or my laptop (like I am doing now) and have a cappuccino.

But, I digress. In both places, at at least one time each, I was there when housekeeping came by to do their job. It is the manner in which they did it, and the comparative differences, that were interesting, and something of an example of the division of labour.

In Zurich, when housekeeping arrived, I was, I would almost say, entertained, by one lady, asking me the usual hospitality questions (How are you doing? Did you sleep well? How is the stay so far? And can she be of any further service?), while a squadron of her colleagues swarmed in to perform the various functions required of their service. Their operation was executed with a near military discipline, and with the speed of a navy seals incursion. They were in and out in under maybe 5 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire hallway takes them under an hour if there are but a few pesky guests lurking inside when they come by. In Zurich, when you're staying at this hotel for business, it is rather unlikely you will ever meet the housekeeping staff.

In Cairo, I've frequently seen the housekeeping staff. They're a polite bunch, saying customary goodmornings and howareyous (though it's a bit evil to have fun at their expense if you respond in ways they don't anticipate, as their grasp of the english language limits their flexibility in that respect), but importantly, I see them lurking along the corridors for the better part of a day (if/when I happen to be around at various times of the day).

When they (well, he...) arrived, there was a polite apology for disturbing me, and he set about his labours. For the better part of 20 minutes a number of activities were performed, followed by a thankyouhaveaniceday.

While the quality of the work-that-was-done is not under scrutiny, the inconsistency of it perhaps is. In Zurich, they were legion, each with specific tasks, and each with very little chance of them forgetting their task, as they had but one, or a few. In Cairo, the housekeeping generalist had to track all of the tasks on his own. And neither did he seem to keep a checklist. Resulting in me some days ending up without shampoo, or without papers for laundry service, or other small things like that.

So what could bring an efficiency of the division to the concept of hotel housekeeping? Perhaps, in Zurich, somehow the staff is not paid by the hour, but paid for "the job". Complete the job faster, your relative hourly rate goes up and you have either more spare time, or you can service multiple hotels (oohh, contractor-based housekeeping!). In Cairo, it seems, time isn't money, or at least not as much. So the hotel can afford to have staff hanging around for the better part of the day. And, since the relative cost is still so low, there's frightfully little incentive[4] to improve on this...

Did I pull the concept of Division of Labour out of it's context? Probably.

Or did I?

Switzerland is one of the most developed countries in the "developed world". Egypt is struggling to escape a number of issues weighing down its economic and societal development. On the one end is a developed and 'over-educated' society dealing with a menial labour service that is by necessity local and cannot be outsourced. On the other end is a huge workforce[5], but one that desperately needs to improve on education, and ambition. The example might not be a true one of division of labour, but it surely is one of the effects of globalisation, and, somehow, the innovation the Western world needs to display to deal with their own level of cost...

[1] 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know - Ben Dupré; ISBN: 9781847240064
[2] 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need To Know - Tony Crilly; ISBN: 9781847240088
[3] 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need To Know - Edmund Conway; ISBN: 9781848660106
[4] Rather, a counter-incentive is the apparent work-culture of long-hours-sedate-pace. It's something of an African thing I suspect...
[5] Demographics of Egypt