Reasoning about production concepts (1)


In my experience, economic and technological innovations lead to debates about the definition of competence for VET and HRM. It seems a debate about a comprehensive definition of competence in directives. What really is something other than the necessary competence at a given moment in a particular company. The debate is about the wrong issues. This is not a search for a comprehensive definition but a debate on reasoning that leads to definitions of competence of employable workers and, at a later date, one on the VET and HRM Guidelines.

In establishing the necessary competence of employable workers in an organisation features of labour in relation the way the production is organised should play a role. It’s a different angle, with benefits in an in-depth understanding of competence. The usual task description offers a rather ‘flat’ description, functional for the division of labour, but not for training, selection and assessment of competence.

An origin of production concepts

We all know several ways of production. Don’t confuse them with company configurations of functions as production, design and management; each function has a specific production form or production concept. My hypothesis is that demands for competence varies with these concepts.

In time, many production concepts have arisen.

At the end of the 18th century Adam Smith describes a more effective and efficient alternative for the craft process. A process for products in which each step is described, structured and standardized. Workers are responsible for one step, not for the whole process anymore. This concept is suitable for a fully predictable production process for standardized products in which workers carry out fully structured actions. It’s mass production, the opposite of the craft processes in the guilds. The time spirit also plays a part. Needs for higher production and standardized products are growing. Above that, governments abolish the system of guilds due to unwanted administrative and economic side effects. Mass production displaces the craft form of labour. A development enhanced by mechanization, automation and robotization of routine operations in the years after until now. The role of knowledge and expertise evolves with. It’s functional for the design of production and the production processes, the division in small production steps and the description of routine operations. Once structured, the body of knowledge is limited to supervision, supply of materials and maintenance of machinery. Workers are reduced to ‘functions‘ of production processes with a restricted repertoire of skills and drills.

Economic effects of mass production are clear. Goods become accessible for many. Craft products, unique single products, on the contrary, are accessible the few with means. This offers them an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the masses. The advantage of mass production is the low cost of products due to the very high production. Disadvantages are the limited variation of products, capital intensity, and costly transitions of workshops when chancing products.

During time, new production concepts, new ways of organizing companies arise influenced by economic and technological developments and changes in the needs of customers. All these affects the needs in competence of workers.

Production concepts and characteristics of labour

The idea of production concepts is not new; many before wrote about the subject. In these concepts factors as division of labour, independency of autonomy in an optimal balance between management, control and structuring. In addition to these, I take the scale size of the ‘production’ and the possibility of structuring and standardisation as important factors.

The old craft shops. This is characterized by small-scale production and long cyclic work processes for journeymen (mates) and master; the division of labour is low. Apprentices work under the supervision and develop repertoire of the craft such as actions and results or skills and drills. The companies of the guild make small ranges of products in low numbers, largely manual without machines of applying parts made by suppliers.

The modern craft shop is characterized by small-scale production, low division of labour with long cyclic production processes for journeymen and masters. The old formal hierarchy of masters, journeymen and apprentices is gone. These companies make a variety of products in low numbers, interact intensive with their customers, using modern means of production and a network of suppliers for parts of the products.

Mass production is characterized by the production in large numbers, per principles of Taylorism, a strong division of labour with short cyclical processes. The whole production process has a high internal complexity because of the many production steps and intensive bureaucracy to control the organization. There is control of all workers, work processes and results.

Mass customization production has almost the same characteristics of the former concept. Small variations of parts of the products lead to somewhat different products. So, the products differ slightly, not the labour.

Small series or flexible production is characterized by varying numbers of products, long-cyclic work and independency or autonomy of workers. Because workers are involved with several production steps of a production run. With modern, automated of robotize means for production. The difference with the modern craft concept is that series of multiple-treatment of materials in one run instead of a step by step process with machines. Workers are responsible for all almost all the steps. Drawings and specs structure the job to be done. So, the division of labour is low. The balance between structuring, management and control and independence is more in favour of the latter; the control is about the speed of the production and the quality of the products.

Services. The concept applies for (parts of) companies with maintenance and small services as their goal. The work be problem solving in a ‘technical’ problem space. Maintenance or services are well known; workers take care for a perfect solution or smooth operation of e.g. machines, mortgages or cars. Planning is a separate function in the company; a specialized worker is responsible for the planning and control; others solve the problems of customers: independent or even autonomous. They work systematically, although there are always uncertainties. Managing the problem is remote, due to the protocols and checklists structuring the work. Workers solve the problems autonomous, asking for backup by colleagues in case of insufficient knowledge or expertise. The work load is high, as many of the cases (problems or services) should be finished at the end of the day.

Professional production or professional problem solving is characterized by low numbers of products, long-cyclic work and autonomy of workers. A high and broad level of knowledge and expertise is an absolute condition; well-known products are examples; in practise the real features depend on the needs of customers, the theoretical basic-design, and a professional answer to the needs and professional quality standards. So, the theoretical and professional standards structure the products, interaction with clients and the work processes. The work consists of certain and uncertain elements. There’s almost no division of labour.

Learning and development’ of consultancy as a production concept is characterized by almost no material products but by (learning-)processes, interaction with clients, long-cyclic work and autonomy of workers. A very high, broad, level of knowledge and expertise of both the problem and strategies for learning and development of individuals, groups and organisations. Past experiences are used to find analogies with the new issue. There’s almost no division of labour.


Not every worker is a soloist, working in splendid isolation; many are team members. Teamwork is an addition to the production concepts.

Team-oriented production concept is characterized as a group of workers; freedom is limited to the division of work on the team. Aspects as the structuring, standardisation and the balance are the responsibility of other in the organisation.

Socio-technical production concept is characterized as a group of independent workers; frequently interacting about issues of the work. A team leader is responsible for the planning and functioning of the team. Result-responsible units (with independent workers) are autonomous in the planning of the work and the quality. The (financial) result counts.

Knowledge production teams concept consist of independent and autonomous and soloist workers with the obligation of knowledge production. Professionals in these teams develop expertise and new knowledge about the profession. It’s an absolute condition for certification and registration of professionals.

Economic aims

Concepts like the ‘old craft’ and ‘modern craft’, ‘mass production’, ‘mass customization production’ and ‘small-series production’ are based on production and trade of material good in so called ‘value chains’. Others, like ‘services’ and ‘professional production’ focus on problem solving for customers; they are based on utilizing knowledge in so called value shops. The concept of ‘learning and development’ is based on both professional knowledge and on expertise and knowledge of learning and development processes of individuals, groups and organizations; it’s considered as value development. I think that value chains, value shops and value development are categories of economic goals for enterprises.


We learn from this overview that we can distinct categories of economic aims of companies. And we learn about the consistency of  a company’s organizational form, with its distinctive features and business segments, with its aims. Next that we can visualize that each business segment has a specific production concept and characteristics of labour. We also are able to design a scale of production concepts, based on division of labour and independence / autonomy and a need for structuring and standardisation. The scale also indicates increasing uncertainties in the work and need for knowledge and expertise of workers: the scale also indicates the extent and nature of the competence of workers.

Ask yourself either we must persist in defining competence with bundles of tasks; or to use the characteristics of labour and the uncertainties in the work. And if so how we could do this.

I also realize that gradually a fuzzy logic originates from this book and blog for transforming characteristics of companies in organizational forms, production concepts and characteristics of labour. This logic supports the determination of necessary competence of employable workers.

Gepubliceerd door

Eduard Moen

Gepensioneerd onderwijskundige, gespecialiseerd in beroepsonderwijs. Retired educationist, specialized in VET.

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