Toyota Agrees: Machines Don’t Innovate – People Do.
It’s great to be right! Not long ago we wrote about how automation, if taken too far, can lead to missed opportunities to innovate and improve production processes. If you use automation to remove too many people from your production process (a short-term gain), you lose the ability to continually improve the process (a long-term pain!)
Even with all the advances in computing power, machines do a poor job of assessing their own performance and spotting ways to improve it. Artificial intelligence-style softwares can try to mimic the presence of a person observing the process, but why bother? It is less expensive and simpler to place a “supervisor” over the machines to actively monitor and assess how the machines are doing; not only keeping them running as programmed, but also carrying the ability and motivation to recommend improvements?
Now along comes word that Toyota has taken the preservation of the human element to heart, as reported by a recent article in Automotive News (from Bloomberg). Their recall problems in the last decade drove them to reassess their relentless drive to expand, and shift more energy and passion back to controlling their production process for quality. And that meant, in part, taking back some quality responsibility from the machines on which they had come to rely.
“Toyota views their people who work in a plant like this as craftsmen who need to continue to refine their art and skill level,” said author Jeff Liker, who has written eight books on Toyota and visited Kawai last year. “In almost every (other) company you would visit, the workers’ jobs are to feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down.”
Toyota calls these highly skilled craftsmen Kami-Sama (“gods” in Japanese) and the goal is to retain the ability to craft a car by hand, if you will, instead of abdicating that expertise entirely to machines. Keeping people involved in a production process run by machines cannot be just a mechanic called in when the machines send out a signal that an error has occurred. It has to be a person steeped in the goal of the process, and the results sought.
“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Mitsuru Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”
A human’s great virtue is his or her ability to analyze, evaluate and offer perspective. Asking a human to go on automatic and simply repeat a task endlessly is a waste of that virtue. Machines should never replace employees. Rather, they should free those seasoned, knowledgeable employees for tasks that take advantage of higher-level thinking skills.
That starts with delegating the ownership of the process, its results and its continual improvement, to the team of supervisors in charge of keeping the process running.
“If there is ever a technology that’s flawless and could always make perfect products, then we will be ready and willing to install that machine,” Kawai said. “There’s no machine that is eternally stable.”
Exactly. Nor can a machine yet critically assess its assigned task, put it in context with the entire production process, and decide to fire itself as no longer economically viable if the process it runs has become outmoded or is economically no longer viable.
Have we gone too far down the automation road? Will your organization take a page from Toyota’s book and work to keep people engaged in process ownership, keeping a critical eye on automation tools to keep their output aligned with your mission? Has any progress been made in that effort? What results have you obtained?