The Dark Side of Process Efficiency (Part 2)

New Orleans MintI’m an efficiency expert.  My raison d’etre is to make businesses run better, faster, cheaper.  I love the work, which is challenging and rewarding, in more ways than one.  But in recent years, I see a darker side to what I do.

Efficiency increases the divide between employees who are capable of innovation and those who merely follow instructions.  In an earlier post, I mentioned three examples of how automation is taking away jobs, faster than any of us ever imagined, and in a wider variety of professions and industries.

At the present time, the easiest tasks to automate are the ones that don’t require the ability to think on your feet, or reason out problems, or innovate.  We’ve heard before that the drive toward automation and efficiency is increasing the divide between the educated and uneducated workforce.  The thought is that there are going to be fewer jobs in the middle income strata.

But this thought is starting to expand a little further afield.  It’s my belief that, in the not too distant future, there will be NO jobs at the lower end.  We – by which I mean an automation society driven by efficiency improvers like myself – will reduce unskilled jobs until they almost disappear.

There’s no doubt technology is sapping jobs.  Unfortunately, many of those jobs used to provide a lot more employment.  It looks lots of workers to man an assembly line, with the average robot (or automation) replacing ten to twenty people, sometimes more.  So where are all those people working now?  How do we reconcile the idea of improving business processes with the concept of full employment?  If there is a moral quandary in the work I do, this is it.

Herein is the dilemma… Is it more important to promote efficiency, where benefits go to the corporation, or more important to employ workers, where benefits go to the economy?  And even IF we wanted to protect employment, how would we do it?   Even as I suggest the following ideas, I recognize the pros and cons to each.  Some may not be worth the price we would have to pay, as a society and as individuals.   With that disclaimer, here are a few thoughts for how to manage the diminishing manhours for unskilled labor:

  • Wage limitations.  In theory, wage limitations would allow employers to employ more people, although the tendency would still be to employ less people, pocketing the saving on a lower wage.  And lower wages don’t boost the economy.
  • Workweek limitations.  Hour limitations might be more effective.  By limiting the amount of hours you can work each week, there is a need to employ more people overall.  However, France tried this experiment years ago and saw national productivity decline.
  • Population control.  Talk about a controversial idea… If there are less people overall, there will be less people competing for scarce jobs.  Not an easy sell in any economy.
  • Corporate workforce regulation.  We could pass laws that required companies to employ a minimum amount of people.  For example, we could cap per-employee revenue at a certain dollar level.  Therefore, if you want to increase revenue, you would have to increase employment as well.  It’s a proposition that would be very difficult to enforce.

I’m a big proponent of corporations that serve the quadruple bottom line – seeing to it that shareholders, employees, community and environment are each taken into account.  In the short term, we can certainly focus on only the shareholder part of the equation (as we have done for the past twenty years), but the long term – sometimes the VERY long term of decades or more – requires that we remain prudent for all four.

We have reached a point where we need to have these conversations.  About how business can/should address all stakeholders.  It’s the way forward to a robust national, as well as global, economy.  Without thinking about the big picture, even my best efforts at efficiency will eventually fall remarkably short of the goal.

 

photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/7156765@N05/13945990438,New Orleans Mint

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