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The Tricky Side of Automation

Referenced by a board member of an Industrial company

Mechanical Clockwork

“Once you automate, you’re incapable of further improvement.” – Sean McAlinden, Chief economist at the Center of Automotive Research

It’s a paradox: automation can make companies extremely productive. But once you spend a lot of money and time designing and implementing a system, you somehow become enslaved by it. Processes become crystallized and in a few weeks the company starts to serve them instead of the other way around.

The key, of course, is to think in advance and focus on automating what really matters, while leaving room for smart human interference and further improvements. Still, there are some caveats:

  1. Automation providers want to sell you pre-packaged solutions and induce you to believe that more automation is better;
  2. More automation, state-of-the-art does look and feel better;
  3. In complex adaptive systems, it’s impossible to really understand how the new process as a whole will work until everything goes live. Extensive planning and test environments are not THAT reliable;
  4. The more you “customize” your vendors’ pre-packaged solutions, the more enslaved the company tends to become;
  5. Once part of the process becomes automated, it’s extremely hard to come up with a better overall systemic solution: local improvements sometimes prevent global gains.

Sure, there is a classical trade-off between the transactional robustness of a system and the flexibility of less definitive – usually cheaper, of lesser perceived quality  solutions that gives you degrees of freedom to adapt and improve. Since technologies and processes are changing so fast, it makes little sense to commit too much to system straightjackets.