Why people enjoy making things at home more than at work

As an Engineer and a Maker it might seem odd to an observer that I drudge through the day only to later strive to create something wonderful at night. Taking an objective look at the situation has made me wonder why it is that people in general enjoy making things at home more than at work.

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I’ll never forget a live demonstration I experienced as a student in second grade: The Doughnut Assembly Line Experiment. My class was split into two groups of 12 students and everyone was taught how to make paper donuts. The process consisted of cutting out a traced picture of a doughnut, coloring it with a pencil, and applying glue & glitter before laying it out at the end of the table.

doughnut assembly line

Instructions designed to suit a second grader’s attention span.

The two groups were then set against each other in a race to make the most doughnuts in 15 minutes. The only stipulation was that my group had each student making doughnuts from start to finish individually, while the other group had students specializing in one specific task in an assembly line.

You already know how this experiment ended but at eight years old, I was shocked at the result. I had worked as fast as I could making those stupid paper doughnuts and I was sure that my team would win because I was on it. But despite my best efforts the other team beat us by a significant margin.

What was the lesson here? Obviously everybody on my team was totally slacking while I drug them kicking and screaming to the finish line. That we lost had nothing to do with the fact that assembly lines are the most efficient method of manufacturing. That’s the logic of an eight year old anyway.

But I think there’s another lesson that we all missed out on. Had they surveyed the students afterwards about how much fun they had making doughnuts and how much they cared about the finished doughnuts, I think the results might have looked something like this:

motivation level 2

People can’t develop a sense of connection to their work or feel proud of a finished product when they play an immeasurably small role in the process of making it.  Without that connection the work feels meaningless; something akin to hand writing “I’m working” over and over on a stack of papers and then shredding those papers in private at the end of the day.

Not surprisingly, this lesson also applies to things outside of making paper doughnuts. While it makes perfect sense from an economic standpoint to leverage your employee’s comparative advantages through the use of an assembly line, doing so in excess will contribute to unhappiness in the workplace. Even the most highly motivated individuals (eh hem) will eventually wear out if they don’t feel that their work is meaningful.

motivation level

Can you spot the pattern?

Sometimes you are better off sacrificing theoretical efficiency by diversifying your employee’s responsibilities in return for improving their job satisfaction. You might be surprised how much of an effect simple changes can have on the way a person feels.

For example, in the 1930’s General Mills intentionally changed their Betty Crocker instant cake recipe to make it more difficult to cook. That’s right. Their original product was designed to optimize convenience by only requiring the addition of water to make a cake, but the product didn’t sell well. At least not until psychologist Ernest Dichter (the guy who coined the term “focus group”) realized that American women wanted to feel more involved in the cake-baking process. Just adding water was too easy and it didn’t foster a feeling of accomplishment for having made the cake. As soon as they removed the dehydrated egg from the mix, thus requiring the user to add the egg, sales exploded. (Competitor Pillsberry stuck with the water-only mix for a while longer but eventually they too switched to the add-an-egg requirement.)

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Motivation is an extremely fascinating subject to me. Sometimes I wonder things like, ‘what would you do with your life if you had enough money that you never had to work again?’ I’m pretty sure that I’d be like the financially independent Mr. Money Mustache, who still works very hard, but only on entire doughnuts and never on assembly lines.

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Final Note: New free engineering design resources are available! These two calculators are simple and so don’t require much of an explanation.

“Shaft Key Sizing” – Determine the appropriate key size and maximum torque for a given shaft size.
“Air Cylinder Force Calcs” – Determine the maximum load for a given size pneumatic cylinder.

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2 comments

  1. […] Speaking of wieners, on a normal day I don’t usually get to interact with people who are engaged with their work. Yes I work with engineers and technicians on a daily basis, but very few of them really give a crap about what they are doing. Maybe there’s some sort of social psychology theory that explains why people care less when they get paid to work. […]

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