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The Art of Work

by Jean Cunningham
November 16, 2018

The Art of Work

by Jean Cunningham
November 16, 2018 | Comments (4)

Art museums are very high on my list of things to do, and because of lean, I have become driven to make work and ideas more visual. There’s a wonderful, unique art museum in Milwaukee that satisfies both of these cravings.

The Grohmann Museum, which is on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), is dedicated to the evolution of human work, and was launched by Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, who has a manufacturing business, and was so happy with the engineers coming out of MSOE that he got much closer to the school. So close that Dr. Grohman became a MSOE regent, and donated his art collection to establish the museum. And, so close that his office is on one of upper floors of the museum! The art is mainly paintings and bronze sculptures displayed on three floors and a roof top.

When you visit the museum, you’re sent at first to the actual roof of the building for a great view of the city, and a large grouping of giant bronzes of individuals at work. Blacksmiths, cobblers, farmers, picks, hammers, etc. Pre-Industrial Revolution work. I felt the immediacy and complete ownership of their work and the end product.

What really drew me in was the museum’s astute organization. The art of work/artwork is organized chronologically, based on the era that different trades came and went. And, then each trade/craft has its own area organized by how the trade evolved. It was readily apparent, viewing the paintings and sculptures, how each trade started with people working with their hands, using basic tools and animals where a driving force was needed. Then as time went on, the art shows more images of people working with their hands but using more mechanization and machines driven by coal, steam, and eventually electricity. Bellows, sewing machines, tractors, etc. And, workers had a slight separation from the work, but were still connected with the end product.

As I wound my way through each floor of the museum, making my way down to street level with decades passing before me, the art more and more was dominated by the machinery, the overall project, or the end product, and less and less on the person doing the work. Factory mechanization, trains, bridges, automobiles, etc.

What really jumped out from the art was how the end product became separated from the worker over time, and how the worker became separated from much of the actual production of the product. The worker fairly rapidly becomes portrayed as just another tool in the creation of product. The tradesman or craftsman skill level was rarely needed for volume production.

The artwork throughout was beautiful and so masterful. I love to paint and sketch and was inspired to improve. But, this view of work in the past and today is one reason why I am so passionate about Lean Thinking. When done correctly and consistently, lean starts to reconnect people to work and work to people. Using lean principles and tools, helps recreate worker ownership of the work, connection to the customer need, and value creation. And, I believe this not only improves business outcomes, but also improves the worker’s engagement and enjoyment of the work. This is why I keep trying to be a lean thinker in every task at work. 

Keywords:  fundamentals,  visual management,  work
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David Hill November 16, 2018


I live in the Milwaukee area and was not aware of this museum.  It is now on my bucket list of things I need to do in Milwaukee but have not yet.


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Jean Cunningham November 20, 2018

I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.  The roof top would be a wonderful place to place to think deeply! The museum also has class space so students and learning going on too. 

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David Verble November 16, 2018
3 People AGREE with this comment

Excellent piece, Jean.  I believe it is an accurate but sad reminder that what we are trying to do with lean/continuous improvement is recapture the ownership and sense of self-efficacy for doing their work that people once had.  Toyota managed to preserve that relationship, ironically through standardized work -- that the operators and their teams own.   We will have to work through many degress of separation to get back to where we were.  Thank you for making this apparent.

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John Shook November 20, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Couldn't agree more, Jean and David. This is the noble challenge of lean thinking & practice. Toyota managed to figure it out for factory and other industrial work. Now the buzz topic of the day is "the future of work." The context and details of work will change, but the noble challenge will remain the same, I suspect, as will the basic thinking of how to go about connecting people to the purpose of their work in meaningful ways.   

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