The Effectiveness of Automation:


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:

Minimal Critical Specification:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Cherns’ second principle of Sociotechnical Design – Minimal Critical Specification. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, documented nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system (1976). I discussed one of these nine principles, the Forth Bridge principle earlier here.

The principle of Minimal Critical Specification has two aspects, negative and positive, according to Cherns;

  1. The negative aspect states that no more should be specified than is absolutely essential.
  2. The positive aspect states that we need to identify what is essential.

Cherns continued – “While it may be necessary to be quite precise about what has to be done, it is rarely necessary to be precise about how it is to be done… It is a mistake to specify more than is needed because by doing so options are closed that could be kept open.”

This is quite an enlightening lesson from Cherns. A common misconception about leadership and managers is that it is the manager’s responsibility to determine what needs to be done, and then tell the employees exactly what needs to be done. This type of thinking is a leftover from Tayloristic Management from the turn of Twentieth century. Frederick Taylor’s brilliant contribution that worked at the time, was to focus on the labor activities and improve efficiency by streamlining motion and eliminating wasted motions. An unavoidable consequence from this was to view the operator as any other equipment. This meant that the operator was asked to bring his pair of hands to work and not his brains. The brains were provided by the managers and engineers. From a complexity science standpoint, this is using the perspective of a complicated system. There is some form of a cause and effect relationship, and with the help of experts we can control how the complicated system works. In other words, this is viewing an organization as a technical system in some regards. This leads to relying on a small group of experts to determine how the system should be designed. This worked at that point in time because, to put simplistically, the world was not complex then or not as complex as it is currently. The demand for variety from the market was easily attained by the variety that was able to be offered by the manufacturing plants. Tayloristic thinking paved the way to mass manufacturing and great hikes in productivity. However, the information age changed the world landscape, and the use of complicated thinking did not seem to work anymore. There came a realization that all organizations are sociotechnical systems. In Cherns’ words, the realization was that the organizational objectives were best met not by the optimization of the technical system, and the adaptation of a social system to it, but by the joint optimization of the technical and the social aspects.

It is said that the management style at Toyota is not to tell the subordinate exactly what needs to be done. The manager’s role is to develop the subordinate by allowing him to come up with solutions, and in turn develop oneself through the process. This concept aligns neatly with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification. Telling exactly what needs to be done is managing people, however developing them by giving them the minimal critical specification is managing the interactions that act on the subordinate. Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker, advises us that the most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, making it easy for them to do their job. Toyota also talks about their production system as the Thinking Production System. Toyota does not see their employees simply as a pair of hands, but as a valuable resource which allows Toyota to grow.

Another aspect that Cherns talked about with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification was regarding bureaucracy. He complained that most organizations have too much specificity regarding how things should be conducted. He even says that “working to rule” can bring the whole system to a grinding halt and that employees have to contrive to get the job done despite of the rules.  Dave Snowden, the great thinker of modern times and creator of the Cynefin Framework, has talked about the dangers of using too many constraints on an ordered system where there is a strong cause and effect relationships. The employees create informal structures and processes to work around the strict constraints. This means that the problems, when they arise, do not always come to the surface. They stay hidden from the top management. Unfortunately, this means that when the system ultimately breaks down, it is generally catastrophic because the system is not prepared and the informal structures are simply not capable.

I will finish with a Zen story;

Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protégé. One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way.

“Where are you going?” asked the one.

“I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded.

This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question. He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”

The children met again the following morning.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other.

This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to his teacher.

“Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher.

The next day the children met a third time.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.

 Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Incomplete Solution.

The Mother of Modern Management:


Today (May 8, 2016) is Mother’s day.  In today’s post I will be writing about somebody who has been called “the mother of modern management”, and “America’s First Lady of Engineering”, in addition to several additional similar titles.

She was known as “Mother” for several things – “Mother of the Year” (1957), “Mother of Industrial Psychology” (1954), “Mother of Modern Management” and “the greatest woman engineer in the world” (1954). (Source: Digging History)

Many of her concepts and ideas lend really well to the Toyota Production System. I will be looking at Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the wife of Frank Gilbreth. The Gilbreths were famous for the time and motion studies, and were most likely the first successful management consultant couple. Lillian did not study Engineering at school. She had a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Literature, and a Doctoral degree in Psychology. Frank Gilbreth did not attend college, although he was admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Gilbreths were considered to be experts in Industrial Engineering.

Humanistic Taylorism:


Taylorism was already popular in those days(early 1900’s). Taylorism became popular as “Scientific Management”, and triggered a push for efficiency. Taylorism promised eliminating wasted motions, and “loafing off” by the employees. However, the outcome of Taylorism was to see the operators as machines. They were required to bring only their hands and not their brains to work.

The Gilbreths understood the failure point in Taylorism – the focus is strictly on the efficiency alone and nothing else. They understood that they needed to engage the operators. Lillian’s background in Psychology helped in this regard. They began to understand that the focus should be on motion rather than time, and they started concentrating on “fatigue”. Lillian worked with her husband to organize the work so that it was easier for the operators to do their work. She asked for input from the operators to identify the best way to do the job. Lillian also had a background as a teacher. She adapted teaching techniques so that the operators were able to learn better and understand the “why” and the “how”. She championed for the “human element”. In my opinion, she pioneered the “humanistic Taylorism” well before Toyota.

Visual Management:



One Variant of Personal Kanban Image Source: WIkipedia

Lillian was a firm believer in Visual Management. She made work visible at home. You can find the undercurrents of “Personal Kanban” in a speech she gave to National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in New York. Personal Kanban has gained traction in recent years as way to implement the ideas of flow, limited work-in-process and visual management for projects.

We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labor in the home. We were executives. So we worked out a plan for the running of our house, adopting charts and a maintenance and follow-up system as is used in factories. When one of the children took a bath or brushed his teeth he made a cross on a chart. Household tasks were divided between the children. We had three rows of hooks, one marked “Jobs to be done,” one marked “Jobs being done” and a third marked” Jobs completed” with tags which were moved from hook to hook to indicate the progress of the task. (Source: 1930 Speech by Lillian Gilbreth to National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in New York)

Workplace Organization:

The Gilbreths pushed for “one best way” to do a job. They believed that workplace organization would improve the flow of the process. Lillian taught the idea of being “motion-minded” – being aware of the motions that you use while doing your job at work or even in a kitchen. The Gilbreths were very confident in their process that they promised a reduction of 33% in work motions in any industry.


Lillian became popular with her analysis of the layout of kitchen during her work at General Electric as an Industrial Engineer. As part of her research, she interviewed over 4000 women and gathered data on proper heights for stoves, sinks and other kitchen appliances. She also identified the best layout to reduce the number of steps taken. She introduced the idea of the “Work Triangle”. In an efficiently planned kitchen, the perimeter of the triangle formed by stove, sink, and refrigerator should be no greater than 26 feet, with a typical distance of 5.5 feet between appliances. The kitchen was laid out in different patterns like “L”, “C” or “U” to better aid the homemaker (Lillian preferred the term “homemaker” to “housewife”). Lillian also introduced the idea of using a roller cart in the kitchen. All the improvements she proposed were tested out in 1931 Better Homes Manual. For the study, a strawberry shortcake was made in the old-style kitchen and in the new-style kitchen. The results were outstanding. The number of operations was reduced from 97 to 64, and the number of steps taken was reduced from 281 to 45, much better than the 33% reduction claim.

Final Words:

Lillian Gilbreth is now perhaps popular for her work in reinventing the modern kitchen or as the mother in the “Cheaper by the Dozen” movies. However, she was much more beyond that. She was an inventor. Her inventions include the foot-pedal trash can and shelves inside refrigerator doors. She faced lot of adversities due to her gender. Lillian authored “The Psychology of Management” in 1914. Her publisher insisted that her name be printed as “L. M. Gilbreth” to hide the fact that the book is written by a woman. Frank died suddenly due to a heart attack at the age of 56. Several of the Gilbreth’s clients canceled their contracts due to their lack of faith in her. Even though “L. M. Gilbreth” was invited to several Engineering clubs to give a talk, she was denied entry when they found out that “L. M. Gilbreth” was a woman.

Lillian Glbreth has earned her own place in the world of Industrial Engineering and Lean. She was recognized by President Hoover to join the Emergency Committee for Unemployment. She designed and created the successful “Share the Work” program to create new jobs. She was a consultant to several companies and the Federal Government. She was the first woman to be elected into the National Academy of Engineering, and she was member number 1 at the Society of Woman Engineers. Lillian Gilbreth passed away in 1972 at the age of 94.

 I will finish this off with an interesting anecdote from the Gilbreths to show the way they thought. Soon after getting married during their honeymoon, Frank asked Lillian to produce a list of qualifications she was bringing into their “partnership”. (Source: Digging History)

Perhaps Lillian Gilbreth’s other great accomplishment was raising her family which included 12 children while making modern advancements in her field. To all the mothers out there – I wish you a happy Mother’s day.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Visibilization: Crime Fighting, Magic and Mieruka.