Josiah Wedgwood – The Manager and Entrepreneur

Most of us have our favorites; be they sporting heroes, politicians, film stars, chefs, and so on. It’s as if our selection of a particular person reflects positively on us-our perspicuity, insightfulness, and plain good taste. In the world of management, for example, we’ve had our flavors-of-the-moment. At one stage it was ‘the celebrity CEO’ (until we realized that they, too, were fallible). We even tried to uncover leadership lessons from figures as diverse as Chief Sitting Bull, Attila the Hun, ‘Stormin’ Norman What’sHisName, and Winnie the Pooh.

Amid all this exploration it is inevitable that some people deserving of recognition and their moments in the sun go unnoticed. One such person is Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795)-master potter, founder of the Wedgwood Company, and grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Wedgwood employed work practices and introduced innovations hundred years before they became accepted parts of everyday organizational life. And in the process, he grew his 20-pound inheritance into 500,000 pounds.

Here are 10 of Wedgwood’s qualities that have contributed to management as it now practiced. [1]

He embraced change

The Industrial Revolution brought with it enormous social, industrial, and economic changes. In the early 18th Century, pottery had been functional, mainly crude vessels for storing and carrying. The pottery industry was dirty and squalid, and its people and work practices coarse and primitive: the industry was ripe for change. Wedgwood embraced many of the changes influencing the ways that his products were made and sold: craftsmanship, designs, processes, and innovation flourished.

The size and sophistication of the market developed throughout the 18th Century. Industrial wages were paid creating increased sources of wealth and disposable incomes. Stylish table accessories were in huge demand in the burgeoning industrial cities and increasingly wealthy colonies. The imbibing of tea and coffee joined the traditional pastime of beer drinking as a national characteristic.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it the opportunity for the pottery industry to replace traditional water-driven mills and windmills with coal-fired steam engines. In 1782 Wedgwood bought one of James Watt’s steam engines. The rest of the industry was quick to follow his lead.

Wedgwood moved in liberal reformer society, too. He applied the principles of the division of labor espoused by his contemporary Adam Smith. He was an avid reader of Paine and Rousseau. He supported the American War of Independence and was an ardent member of the Anti-Slavery Committee.

He built and maintained productive relationships

Today, Wedgwood would be described as a ‘Renaissance Man’. He was a master networker and collaborator. He valued and nurtured friendships and personal connections, many of whom possessed quite diverse interests. For example, he collaborated with leaders in the Arts and Scientific communities towards even better designs for his products. His friend and business partner, Thomas Bentley, expertly read social trends that enabled Wedgwood to produce fine things that were in demand. The marketplace was amazed at how Wedgwood was able to read and respond to social trends that ultimately resulted in increased sales.

His collaborating with leaders in their fields at the time, enabled Wedgwood to replace (with confidence) the drab, coarse, and everyday with a huge range of beautiful and affordable products. He worked also with fellow Staffordshire potters to solve common technical problems. In 1775, for example, he initiated what was probably the world’s first collaborative industrial research project.

He practiced MBWA

The term Management-By-Walking-Around (MBWA), borrowed from Hewlett-Packard and enshrined by Tom Peters and Bob Watermanin in the first business bestseller In Search of Excellence , was practiced by Josiah Wedgwood almost two hundred years earlier. Wedgwood believed in and practiced being visible to his workers-mentoring and coaching rather than ‘snoopervising’. His practice of MBWA enabled him to produce a highly detailed ‘Potters Instructions’ developed from over the 30 years of his on-the-job experiences.

An initial drawback was a weakened knee-a leftover of childhood smallpox. When the knee began to hamper his ability to walk around the factory, Wedgwood decided to have his leg amputated. With that inconvenience dealt with, he strapped on a wooden leg and continued his practice of MBWA.

He insisted on WH&S

Wedgwood was conscious of health and safety, especially to the ever-present dangers of lead poisoning. He insisted on proper cleaning methods, work attire, and washing facilities. Substance abuse was not tolerated. He instituted a complete ban on drinking alcohol. Punctuality was demanded. Constant attendance was encouraged. Fixed hours and a primitive check-in system were introduced. Wedgwood was scrupulous about cleanliness and avoiding waste. Workers were heavily fined for leaving scraps of material around.

He led by example

Wedgwood began work as a potter aged 11 (his father died when Josiah was 9 leaving him the youngest of 13 children). He knew all of the ‘tricks-of-the-trade’. His ‘Potters Instructions’ covered detailed explanations of every process to be undertaken and every trick used by the workforce to cut corners.

Wedgwood was hard working, driven, demanding, intellectually curious questioning established practices, and always on the lookout for better ways of dong things. He was highly ambitious and fastidious about quality doing everything exceptionally well. And he expected the same from his workers.

Wedgwood’s persistence is legendary. His favorite motto was ‘everything yields to experiment’. Even though Edison’s efforts in perfecting the light bulb is familiar to most people (although the number of failed attempts is open to conjecture), Wedgwood’s persistence almost one hundred years earlier in producing Jasper have gone largely unrecognized. After more than 5,000 recorded experiments, Wedgwood (1775) produced Jasper, a product described as one of the most significant innovations since the Chinese invention of porcelain nearly 1,000 years earlier.

He pioneered productive work practices

When Wedgwood founded his main factory (Etruria), he set out to industrialize what was a peasant industry. He applied the principles of the Adam Smith’s division of labor by involving specialists concentrated on one specific element of the production process resulting in enhanced efficiency. Training and skill development were important features of this process. In 1790, nearly one-quarter of his workforce were apprentices, many of them female.

The factory system at the time had no tradition of foremen, clerks, or managers to exert discipline. In a precursor to what was to become Scientific Management in the early 20th Century, he produced highly detailed ‘Potters Instructions’ based on the regulations and rules he had developed over the 30 years of his experiences.. They covered detailed explanations of every process to be undertaken, every trick used by the workforce to cut corners, and instructions on how to reward high performers and reprimand poor ones.

Through their flexibility, the Wedgwood factories were able to produce short runs of highly varied goods, quickly changing color, fashion, style, and price as the market dictated. His production system minimized proprietary risk, reduced fixed costs, and maximized input from skilled labor.

He was fastidious about quality

Wedgwood was a visionary: he wanted to leave the world a better place as a result of his contributions. One of his boasts was that he ‘made artists out of mere men’. To that end (and others, of course), he was famously intolerant of poor quality. He would prowl the factory smashing substandard pots and writing in chalk on offending workbenches, ‘this will not do for Josiah Wedgwood’. Workers were fined for breaches of his demand for quality.

He was, however, committed to training his workers and providing them with the best quality raw materials. He supported an apprenticeship system, he invested in education, health, diet, and housing of his employees. In what today would be called ‘global sourcing’, he purchased clay from America in a deal struck with the Cherokee nation, from Canton in China, and from Sydney Cove through his contact with Joseph Banks.

He used marketing to create demand and increase sales

Wedgwood provided the pièce de résistance of marketing to a world where ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ was the operative. He opened new showrooms in London and allowed customers’ comments to inform design and production. He introduced self-service, catalogue-selling, pattern books, free carriage of goods, money-back guarantees, regular sales, all aiming in Wedgwood’s words ‘to amuse, and divert, and please, and astonish, and even to ravish the ladies’.

He assiduously sought patronage from aristocrats and politicians and exploited their orders as testimonials are used today. When Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, ordered a tea service in 1776, he trumpeted the royal endorsement on his letterhead, in his showroom, and in his advertising. Calling his cream colored line, ‘Queen’s Ware’, he excited the aspirations of its users. For the privilege, he charged premium prices, compared to those of his competitors, for those wishing to eat off plates fit for a Queen. On another occasion, he made a 932-piece service for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. People (including royalty) cued outside his London store to see the sensation.

He chose open innovation over intellectual property

Wedgwood was inspired by the work of others and, to that end, he was flattered by others copying his work. He was less concerned about maintaining intellectual capital that he was about contributing to the development and enhancement of relationships, as this example illustrates.

One of the perennial challenges of making ceramics was measuring high temperatures in kilns in order to control the production process. Wedgwood invented a pyrometer, or thermometer, that recorded these temperatures. In true Wedgwood fashion, he did not try to retain the technology for himself. He also provided fellow scientists with specially designed experimental apparatus.

He was the master of logistics and infrastructure

No stone was left unturned by Wedgwood in his pursuit of excellence in product and sales. He devoted enormous amounts of time and money to improving communications and transportation, especially with the ports that brought him raw materials and provided his routes to market. He promoted the development of turnpike roads and was treasurer of the construction of the Grand Trunk Canal, an extraordinary engineering feat 93 miles long, linking Staffordshire with the ports of Liverpool in the West and Hull in the East. It is estimated that following the completion of the canal, freight rates reduced by ninety percent.

1. Ockham’s Razor, Radio National, Australia: ‘An innovator for the ages’, 14 December 2008, presented by Professor Mark Dodgson, Director of the Technology and Innovation Management Centre at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Source by Dr Neil Flanagan

Leave a Reply