blueprint-964629_1280Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. Typical examples may include software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, whose job is to “think for a living.” This is the first line from the Wikipedia page defining the knowledge worker.

The above statement cites Thomas Davenport as the source in Thinking For A Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results From Knowledge Workers. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (2005). The statement mirrors a common perception that there is a distinction between knowledge workers and people who do work that others have figured out for them.

In the Lean enterprise we are all expected to think. On the construction site the pipe fitter installing sanitary drain lines is expected to be as much a knowledge worker as the engineer who designed the plumbing system. One point to be made is that translating building drawings into installed work requires thinking and at times a fair amount of problem solving as drawings frequently do not appreciate the challenges people face in the field.

I recently heard a presentation from a team that described how they were able to fit embeds and reinforcing steel into a space that nearly did not allow for any concrete to be added to sections of a wall. The team was proud at their ability to devise some clever workarounds to the problems not anticipated in the engineering of that structure. Such clever workarounds abound on construction projects because construction workers are also knowledge workers who have learned to deal with deficiencies in building drawings. They don’t usually report the workarounds because they don’t trust that anyone will listen.

So, a second point is that the industry needs to do a better job at engaging, by building trust, the knowledge workers in the field so that not only problems, but importantly also proposed improvements, are better communicated to managers, designers and engineers. Otherwise we are wasting a tremendous amount of knowledge.