However, the real challenge for both society and businesses is in ensuring that both the people entering the workforce from school and those whose roles are automated have the right skills that those new jobs demand.Nevertheless, there is a different concern that, whilst not new, I see as increasingly prevalent and contrary to the very Lean Thinking and Lean Leadership that I believe delivers superior customer service and hence business performance. This is the prevalent view of automation as a 'silver bullet' to solve problems and reduce costs and this view is gaining momentum, especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated, reliable and cheaper across most areas of industry.
If we think about it, fundamentally the Leaderships of almost all Organisations have the same strategic objective, which is to improve their respective enterprise's performance. That is common whether it is a Multi-national corporation, NGO, Government Department or a family run small business. The only difference is that the metrics of performance might be different and the aspects of performance that they value will differ.
To make this improvement, the organisation needs to firstly understand what its customers value and secondly improve its capability to deliver that value. That is where automation can play a strong role but, and this is a big but, only when the automation is implemented and deployed in unison with the other key elements of capability, that of i. capable processes and ii. competent and engaged people.
It is in this aspect that organisations often fail to implement automation effectively, as they deploy technological solutions without proper attention to the processes and people development aspects of capability. Furthermore, consideration toward the customer value is often ignored, with decisions on automation made based upon the 'efficiency' of the value added portion of the value stream, as opposed to considering the total Lead-time and hence the amount of waste within the system. This can, and often does, result in value streams that have highly automated processes but long-lead times, impacted by a high level of defects, waiting times, over-processing, over-production (a favourite of automation) and the inherent inventory it leads to.
This is not to suggest that automation is a bad thing to do, quite the contrary, but it must only be done with an equal attention to the people and process development. This approach, where the system of capability is created, is what in Lean Terms has been named ‘Autonomation’ and is a hybrid word formed from the words automation and autonomy. It has a history that dates back at least to the ‘intelligent loom’ developed by Sakichi Toyoda at the end of the 19th Century, which was able to stop itself when a thread broke, allowing the operator to intervene and solve the problem. It was this approach to, and belief in, Autonomation that has informed the thinking of Toyota since its beginning and enables a key element of the Toyota Production system, Jidoka.
Recently Mercedes illustrated the advantage of Autonomation with the assembly line for their new ‘S-Type’ when they opted to utilise smaller, more flexible robots, working side-by-side with their team members and with much more focus on the flexibility that people bring in delivering customer value. The S-Type is one of their premium offerings and, as such, they need to be able to offer their customer a plethora of options, which requires that nearly every car going down the line is different in some aspect. This is where human intelligence and flexibility, combined with the consistency and labour saving attributes of robots and designed into a capable process, provide the capability required to deliver customer value most effectively.
For automation to truly be automation, the machine or robot must not only be able to reliably and consistently execute the process but must also be able to both detect and solve defects. Very few automation solutions can do this and therefore human intervention is generally required and, where the human aspect is treated as subordinate to the robot, the organisation will be penalised by low effectiveness, delivered as low productivity, service and quality. However, where the automation is clearly positioned as the enabler of the performance of the team members, they will take ownership of the process and deliver the customer value that we need.
Whilst the implication of the article might be that I am referring to the world of manufacturing, what I am talking about is relevant to any part of the Customer Value Chain or its enabling functions and I was inspired to write this article after attending the Infosys Confluence Conference. The event was held in San Francisco this week, where the theme was ‘Zero Distance’ and many aspects of automation and robotisation were presented and discussed. Being responsible for my company’s partnership with Infosys BPO, I am well aware of the high level of competence that Infosys have in this area and we are jointly working on a number of automation initiatives in the Accounting Operations processes that they support us in.
Nevertheless, we have learned that the efficacy of the automation is only as good as the competence and engagement of our people and the effectiveness of the processes that it supports and have therefore embarked on our joint Lean Transformation whereby we ensure that all 3 elements of capability are addressed. This aims to ensure that we adequately adopt the philosophy of Autonomation into our approach.
Getting beyond an automation led approach to efficiency and instead developing an Autonomation strategy toward Operational Excellence will take, as always, more time and effort in the planning but will ensure that the performance improvement is significantly higher and far more sustainable. It will ultimately ensure that we continue to live the Lean Leadership Paradigms of Long-term focus of purpose, utilising proven and reliable technology, building a culture of stopping to fix problems, standardising tasks and processes and using only reliable technology that serves our people and processes. Above all, it will help in the most important aspect of a Lean Thinking organisation, that of respect for people.
When we are able to do this we will ensure that our Capability is maximised, delivering Operational Excellence and rewarding our Customers, and hence our Business, with a significant improvement in Quality, Service and Cost.
"I aim to promote the global sharing of best practices in the application of Lean Thinking."