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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Labor Saving Innovation

When I was a little kid, I used to go and stay with my grandparents for a week or two each summer. I thought it was fun, and I liked going there, but I realized later it was mainly to give my parents a break. So I guess we were all better off. Except maybe my grandparents by the end of the second week.

For awhile, my grandfather was the watermaster for an area north of Yuba City, CA (around Tudor if you know the area, the water came from the Feather river near Star Bend if I remember correctly, and it was used to irrigate crops and orchards). When I visited, I'd sometimes go to work with him and one part of the job was him riding around in his pickup and checking the height of water in concrete pipes spread throughout the area he managed (they were taller than he was, and a couple of feet in diameter -- some were rectangular and much larger). He would then adjust the water if it was too low or too high (probably automated today, don't know, he did it, in part, by adjusting the intake from the river). This required him to take a ladder from his pickup, lean it up against the pipe, look inside and and visually check the water height, and then pack up again.

Float-guageLike any worker, he preferred the job to be easier rather than harder, so he designed and installed a float system in each pipe that would allow him to check the water height as he drove by. No more getting out of the truck. It was simply really, just a float in the pipe attached to a lever on a pivot with an indicator attached to the other end, but it was a huge timesaver (there's a really bad depiction of it next to this paragraph). There were also markers on the outside corresponding to water heights (in feet) on the inside.

After he did this, he was able to spend more time at other things (one of which I think was a nap each day after lunch), and also take on new things that weren't possible before.

Not sure what started me thinking about this, but it makes me wonder how much innovation on the production floor comes from workers trying to make things easier for themselves. I think it was a government job -- not completely sure -- doesn't matter though, the incentive to reduce irksome labor is there profit motive or not. But even for firms where the profit motive is present -- firms where we think of managers imposing profit-maximizing changes -- how much profit enhancing innovation is actually due to workers just trying to make their day a little easier?

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 06:03 PM in Economics, Productivity | Permalink  Comments (28)


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