Machines Don’t Innovate: People Do.
In America the urge to automate in in any industry is strong. We see great efficiencies in assigning rote tasks to technology (machines and their softwares) and eliminating harder-to-manage people. The benefits are multiple: Lower costs, fewer errors, more consistent quality.
In our drive to automate our production processes, however, removing a number of people from the day-to-day process of production also removes the one facet of people that machines cannot (yet) replace: The ability to diagnosis issues and create solutions: That is, to innovate!
That can lead to a productivity dead end: Fewer eyes involved in a manufacturing process means fewer brains involved in continually working with the production process. Innovation is driven in great part by human interaction with, and frustration with, the process of creating a useful good or service.
We tell the machine what to do. It responds without complaint!
A machine is programmed to keep doing its assigned task until a part wears out or a program gets corrupted. At which point a person shows up to diagnose what is wrong and fix it. The only problem is that the person has a very specific task: Keep the current process rolling. Their involvement is episodic, not continual. They have far fewer chances to experience the process, and spot the moments or steps where improvements could be made.
Fewer people with hands-on roles means fewer people asking “how can we do this better?”
Companies with automation initiatives (some of which have the goal of keeping jobs in the home country) therefore have to take extra steps to ensure that the creative involvement of humans stays high in every one of their business and production processes. Feedback loops must be built and nurtured. Management must have it as a priority to foster active process observation and demand constructive criticism:
- Is the machine or software delivering productivity improvements? Where are the gaps?
- What are humans who interact with or rely on the technology reporting about its benefits and problems?
- What insight can those people offer to help innovate better solutions?
In the absence of employees working the line, you may have to rely on your vendors and customers for this input, so be prepared to give those people ample and easy opportunities to provide feedback.
- Have a dedicated team for each process whose main responsibility is the continued improvement of that process using the feedback gained from all the people the process impacts.
- To achieve this retention of the ability to innovate productively, you should consider keeping more people on as “innovation stewards” than the newly automated process might demand so that you can retain the ability to innovate even better solutions.
What other issues arise with the move to more automated, less people-intensive business processes? Has your organization experienced a rise or fall in the rate of innovation once automated processes get put in place? Are you now going to go out and try to measure that? Let us know what you discover!