Separating Human Work From Machine Work [Infographic]

Most of the work we do today involves interactions with machines. It is true not only in manufacturing but in many other business processes. The machinist works with machining centers, the pilot with an airplane, the surgeon with a laparoscopy robot, the engineer with a variety of computer systems,…, not to mention the automatic appliances that relieve us of household chores. In fact, I think that being good at working with machines is so essential that I wrote a book about it. For the short version, see the following A3/tabloid infographic. To enlarge it, click on the picture, and then on “View full size” in the bottom right-hand corner.

Separating Human Work and Machine Work

One of the key points of TPS on this subject is the idea of separating human work from machine work. It means designing and executing the work with different timelines for the people and the machines involved. If an operation is such that the same people and machines must be present and involved from start to finish, there is only one timeline. If, on the other hand, the operator can start an automatic cycle on the machine and walk away trusting that it will complete successfully and that there is no need to return until then, you can plan for the operator to do other work in the meantime, meaning that the operator and the machine are on separate timelines, that meet only at the start and the end of the machine cycle.

We experience this in daily life with washing machines. We load them up, select a program, add a dose of detergent, press “Start” and walk away, confident that it will be done in, say, 60 minutes. The same is true of most kitchen ovens. There is no need to stand in front of these machines the whole time. They are on their own timeline, and you on yours, and they even know when to stop. In theory, the same should be true of your office printer. You should be able to tell it to print double-sided and collate 25 copies of your 50 page course handout but you can’t, can you? The minute you turn your back, it jams, or runs out of paper or ink/toner. If the printer is next to your desk, you may be able to get snippets of work done between stoppages; if it is in another room, you’re stuck standing in front of it the whole time, clearing and restarting it at random intervals, and idle in between.

Clearly, you can be more productive with a machine that actually works on a fire-and-forget mode than with one requiring baby sitting. The real question is how to get there from here, and there are two challenges to overcome for this to happen:

  1. Manufacturing or process engineering. Technically improving your processes is an engineering challenge at multiple levels, from physics and chemistry at the core to the handling of parts inside the machine and operator interface design.
  2. Planning the work or people and machines. Once you have made it practically possible to move away for the duration of an automatic machine cycle, you need to lay out the machines and organize the flow of work with the goals of keeping the operator doing useful work and making effective use of the machines.