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In Praise of Grunt Work


broken-glass

Photo credit: Vieux Bandit

An experience I had that comes back to me from time to time is work I used to do way back in the early 1990s. I was an Assistant Buyer for Hecht’s Department Store in Washington D.C. My department? Stationery and Frames.

The picture frames could get handled roughly, both by customers and in transit. Which meant broken glass. A lot of it.

The store department managers would box up these frames of broken glass, and ship ‘em back to the Hecht’s warehouse in Maryland. Boxes of these frames would show up each week, stored in the specially designated Frames area. I’m guessing the warehouse crew thought that was sort of amusing.

So you’ve got a bunch of frames, but no glass. What do you do? Ship ‘em back to the different manufacturers?

No, you send the Assistant Buyer to the warehouse to replace the glass.

We’d order a bunch of different pieces of glass, and I’d rebuild these poor little specimens on the Island of Misfit Frames. It sucked. I mean, I wore gloves but would inevitably get cuts on my hands. It was hot in that warehouse. Sitting there for hours doing this work was b o r i n g. I was a college grad, dammit!

But something happened over the hours, days and weeks I did this work. I learned those picture frames. I knew all the Burnes styles cold. It happened in spite of my dislike of the glass replacement work in the warehouse.

How did it help?

  • Sales numbers on a report were matched to a style I knew, making the data much more informative
  • Ad layouts – I knew the colors and styles to put into each ad
  • Store merchandising – I could go into any store and quickly size up the shelves for presentation and inventory
  • Product selection – I could compare new styles to what we already carried

All from the hours of grunt work in the warehouse. This is a lesson I like to remember from time to time.

*****

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

2 Responses to In Praise of Grunt Work

  1. Mark Dykeman says:

    I’m going to take a minute to jump on my soapbox for a moment.

    Your story is a valuable example of the value of experience vs. education. Book learning provides a theoretical framework or roadmap to understanding something. However, dull boring repetitious work will occasionally bring benefits that we don’t immediately appreciate. You can learn a lot of additional, unexpected information that can be valuable in the long term. I’ve spent many hours doing grunt work in Word documents, spreadsheets, mainframe data entry programs, etc. The time wasn’t 100% conducive to learning new things, but it was conducive to better internalizing knowledge that I’d already been exposed to. By practicing these things until I could do them in my sleep, it made it easier to solve problems or learn similar concepts in less time. To me, this is a prime reason why people with experience who do jobs often do merit more pay than neophytes with education and a certain amount of training. There are so many little things in a business that people can’t, and won’t, teach you because they are embedded into work processes. Your story helps illustrate that example. Similarly, the summer that I spent washing trailers for a local transportation company was bloody boring, but the little things that I learned about how that company worked, that I absorbed during the boring and mindless day job, have helped me out on more than one occasion.

    Here, here.

    • Thanks Mark. I really did get much more from that boring warehouse work than I initially realized. You’re right about this experience being more valuable than just book learnin’. Book learnin’ is valuable, perhaps its greatest value is in practicing study, analysis and comprehension skills. It’d be fun to hear people’s most menial, grunt work, and what they got out of it.

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