One or two years into my new job at a large Singaporean organisation, I found out that my senior from high school had been appointed to shadow a prominent minister. Over lunch, I asked him what he had learnt.
“It’s so awesome you get to shadow Minister X,” I said. “So does he give you any advice?”
“You mean he doesn’t teach you anything?”
“He’s Minister of X & Y & Z. Do you think he has the time to sit down and teach someone like me?”
“So…how do you learn anything?”
“I follow him and watch. If he tells me to do something I just do it.”
As I watched Netflix’s newly-released American Factory, this conversation from over ten years ago kept coming back to mind. The documentary captures numerous cultural differences between American and Chinese employees as Fuyao Glass, the dominant automotive glassmaker in China, attempts to build a foothold in America and in the process revive its decaying manufacturing heartland. In one of the scenes, an America complains about the mind-numbing work and none of his Chinese supervisors bothering to explain the why of what he is doing.
“Why am I doing this, I ask. Just do, he says and walks off.”
I thought back to my conversation ten years ago. Underlying my friend’s statement, “I learn by watching”, was a very Singaporean (one could perhaps generalise this to many places in Asia) expectation about learning: that learning takes place not through discussion or talking, but by observation, contemplation, and doing. Learning at work is an internalised process of reflective contemplation, growing in knowledge/skill as you perform the task. Talk less, do more.
In my schooling years this was pretty much the way classroom teaching went as well, and one reason I struggled so much. The teacher explained the lesson, and everybody listened, absorbed, and reflected on the material internally. If I raised my hand more than once to ask or answer a question, I was told to give others a chance–but no one else was raising their hands! At college in America however, learning via discussion was not only okay, it was actively encouraged and rewarded.
Before working at that organisation, I suppose I had expected someone to mentor or hold my hand as I learnt the ropes—but received no such support (the organisation did, in later years, improve its support for new staff). The expectation for me as a junior staff was to be quiet, watch and listen—and learn by doing so. After a few years working there I started to feel like I had lost my voice. I became quieter, more afraid to voice my thoughts. And then the management changed—and new management in a reverse turnaround suddenly demanded everyone speak up and share their opinions more.
Of course, I was at a white-collar professional job, which is very different from working on the factory line, repeating the same process over and over again—or is it? White-collar jobs are also full of unnecessary and meaningless tasks that need to be repeated over and over again. Far easier to repeat the same corporate processes year after year, than to get into trouble for reinventing the wheel. Thinking gets you into trouble, questioning earmarks you for making your superiors look bad—office work or factory work?
Not thinking may seem like the ideal state of mind for working in a manufacturing line—repeating the same manual process over and over again, losing your sense of self until you are really just a cog in the wheel. Or is it really? It may have been alright for China during the early boom years, when factories were flooded with young, uneducated rural workers. But with increasing levels of education and prosperity, a different approach is also necessary—and for Fuyao, its American experiment was perhaps an important lesson.