In today’s post, I will be looking at automation. Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous Scientist alive today, warned us about automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in his column on The Guardian. He said;
The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
Bill Gates recently talked about the concept of taxing robots who are taking away the manufacturing jobs. Interestingly, these concerns are not new. Lillian Gilbreth talked about “The Human Side of Automation” in a 1957 speech at the Society of Women Engineers National Convention. She put forth the need to evaluate the responsibilities of the engineers doing the automation. She advised relying on the scientific method and ethics, and proposed adding “human resources” to the definition of automation. Her concept of automation is about the removal of “drudgery” from work. However, she warned that there are different ways someone views what drudgery is.
In my mind, the main question that needs to be answered is the effectiveness of automation. The aspect of making a job easier to do is part of continuous improvement activities. Frederick Taylor, often cited as the father of Scientific Management, changed the manufacturing world by pushing the concept of finding the one standard way of doing the job. He pushed the concept of time and motion studies with the help of the Gilbreths. The wasted motions were eliminated and this surged the productivity in the plants. The pursuit of wasted motions is as valid today as it was back when Taylorism was around. The consequences of Taylorism were the focus on only efficiency and the reliance on a small group of experts, which paved the way to mass manufacturing with the assembly lines. The “experts” designed the manufacturing floors and the work, sometimes with minimal input from the operators. This continued until, Toyota came into the picture with the ideas of Toyota Production System. Toyota also pursued efficiency; however they realized the lessons of Lillian Gilbreth as well. The employees are invaluable resources, and they focused on the Thinking Production System (TPS) where the employees were asked to bring not only their pairs of hands but also their brains. The Toyota Way, Toyota’s attempt to codify the implicit knowledge, was written with the two pillars of Toyota as “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. Unfortunately, when TPS was reinterpreted as Lean, sometimes the focus was put back on efficiency alone which led to the pejorative definition of LEAN as “Less Employees Are Needed” or what Mark Graban calls as LAME. Lillian Gilbreth, in her 1957 speech advises us to keep this in mind when improvement activities are performed – What happens to the employees? This impacts the company culture.
Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker, when talking about Toyota asked an important question about effectiveness. He asked why the focus is not on improving the environment since cars can cause pollution. This is the big picture question. Toyota has been working on zero emissions and recently launched Mirai, which is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The question of effectiveness is about the betterment of human kind.
Automation can replace only those portions of the jobs which are ordered or complicated – which means there are strong cause and effect relationships, and have repeatable operations. This is almost as if following a script- if this happens, then do this. Automation cannot handle complexity at this point in time. In Complex situations, there are no straightforward cause and effect relationships. Every situation is unique. Artificial Intelligence has not been able to make strides in these areas. The concept of efficiency is strong in complicated regions and the concept of effectiveness is strong in the complex regions. Creativity and continuous improvement are not repeatable activities. A robot with a melted candy bar in its pocket next to a magnetron cannot invent the next microwave oven, at least not yet.
The push for automation can again put us back into the mass manufacturing era. We can start making things for the sake of not keeping the robot idle. We can start making things that people do not want to purchase. We can keep making the wrong things. The push for automation for the sake of cost reduction which leads to loss of jobs is not pursuing effectiveness. There is no easy answer to this. We do need automation to replace “drudgery”. However, the betterment of humanity must be the focus at all times.
I will finish off with a story that Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth told in her speech;
Lillian was at a factory with her husband Frank. Frank had arranged for a trolley to move the iron back and forth so that the woman operator did not have not to do any heavy lifting. Frank asked the operator, “Mary, how do you do like this nice little trolley I made for your iron?”
The operator looked at him straight in the eyes and asked, “Do you really want me to tell you?”
Lillian knew the answer was not going to be good and wanted to move on. But Frank persisted for an answer.
Mary said, “Well, I think it is the work of a big, fat, lazy man.”
Lillian concluded in her speech that by creating the trolley, Frank had taken away all the satisfaction from Mary’s work. Mary was the only one strong enough to do what she did and she took pride in what she did. Now it was a job anybody could do. Lillian also noted that they should have been “intelligent” enough to notice that what seemed drudgery to them was not necessarily the case to Mary. They should had asked for input and better defined what drudgery actually was.
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Practicing Lean, a review: