The Dark Side of Process Automation (Part 1)

Robot FactoryMy avocation is process efficiency.  I spend my time helping businesses come up with ways to do things smarter, faster, better.  My teams think it a big success to decrease the time it takes to do something by 50% or more.  Yet… I’m concerned about how all this efficiency, including automation and “right-sourcing”, are affecting the long-term prospects for human employment.

Case 1 — The state of California has a relatively new tax program called “Ready Return”.   It allows the state department of revenue to assemble what they already know about you – wages reported on a W-2, income from bank or investment accounts – into a pre-filled tax return.  You review the information, add or correct if necessary, sign and return the form to receive an income.

It’s a wonderful example of efficiency.  It’s the very best use of technology, to save human effort.

Not surprisingly, the change is being fought by companies like Intuit (maker of TurboTax) and H&R Block.  If successful, the program will eliminate the need for many, many paid tax preparers.  It will reduce the need for do-it-yourself tax software. Those software companies employ technical support staff to help answer customer questions.  With less customers, there will be less need for customer support, and less jobs.

Case 2 — You would have to be living under a rock not to know that Google is developing driverless cars.  I drive myself every day.  When I envision a driverless vehicle, I imagine being able to make calls and take care of work during my commute.  Sort of the way it works in cities with good public transportation. So my driverless vehicle won’t put anyone out of work, it will just make my life easier.

But driverless cars in Manahattan?  To be honest, sometimes I would prefer to take a taxi without human interaction.  But that’s a lot of drivers to put out of work.  Of course, you could tell yourself that we are decades away from working out the public acceptance issues of driverless cars.

Not really.  In some mining and drilling sites, there are already robotic and autonomous vehicles doing tedious, dangerous or time-consuming jobs.  Oil drilling and fracking sites are beginning to use self-driving vehicles for water delivery, skirting the otherwise tedious and expensive trips made with human drivers, who can only drive for limited hours per day and in certain weather conditions.  Mines are beginning to use autonomous vehicles to create a 24×7 work stream, doing jobs that may be too dangerous for human drivers.

Case 3 — I saw the third case for myself.  At the time, I was doing some work for a manufacturer of specialty glass, when one of my consulting trips was postponed.  A serious winter storm was rolling in and the governor of the state had requested that area businesses close for a few days if possible, especially in low-lying areas.

Under normal circumstances, this highly-automated factory runs with a very small crew.  Most of the workers had already headed home, but the last two workers decided to try something.  Before they locked up, they set up the production line to run.  With some orders scheduled for later that week, they figured that even a few hours of runtime would be better than nothing.

When they returned, product was ready, stacked neatly.  Almost like elves had been producing while they were away.    When they saw what had happened, workers marveled and cheered and congratulated each other for setting up such an efficient operation.  They had created three days of inventory, without lifting a finger.

Then they fell silent.  They had created three days of inventory, without lifting a finger.
The efficiency expert in me loves these stories.  Each one of them simplifies or streamlines work to make life easier for customers or better for the environment.  But they also take away jobs, or reduce the need for the “skilled” portion of skilled labor.  The remarkable question is this… What can, or should we do about it?  For the moment, let’s make that a question for another post.


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