Productivity and Technology

Journalist Charles Duhigg has a new book out on the subject of productivity and was being interviewed about it on NPR. I heard him express as a general principle that new technology never increases productivity when first implemented because organizations and individuals use it as a new way of doing exactly what they were doing before. Over time, productivity does increases as users discover new tasks or methods that the technology enables but were beyond the imagination of its early adopters.

We see this pattern clearly when looking back at successful innovations. Looking forward, on the other hand, we can’t assume that every current invention will have future applications that no one can envision today. Our perceptions are biased because we only remember the inventions that have survived the shakeout of confrontation with markets and society.

We can’t generalize from past inventions, but it is true that the successful innovations have to overcome what Marshall McLuhan called the horseless carriage syndrome.  Until hearing about this last week, my only exposure to McLuhan had been his cameo appearance in Annie Hall, in which he berates an academic for knowing nothing about his work:

Working in Manufacturing, why should I have paid attention to the work of an academic who philosophized about TV, radio, and print, and died in 1980, when most the media we use today didn’t exist? Perhaps because he had the ability to formulate general principles that are relevant beyond his area of expertise. Perhaps also because his influence endures, as people who have not read his work unknowingly quote him when they say “the medium is the message,” or talk about the “global village.”

Here is a quote from him about Manufacturing from 1964 that, with the possible exception of the choice of examples, could have been found in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review:

“Thus, with automation, for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs, it is true. That is the negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. […] In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs.” (Understanding Media, p. 9)

Whether about 1964 or 2017, I would still disagree. Food processing moves faster and at a higher level of automation than car manufacturing, and “human work and association” are quite different in both worlds.

Following are a couples passages introducing the concept of the horseless carriage syndrome:

“The principle that produced the names “wireless” and “horseless carriage” is another instance in that long list that illustrates how every innovation must pass through a primary phase in which the new effect is secured by the old method, amplified or modified by some new feature.” (Understanding Media, p. 323)

“The word ‘wireless,’ still used for radio in Britain, manifests the negative “horseless-carriage” attitude toward a new form. Early wireless was regarded as a form of telegraph, and was not seen even in relation to the telephone. David Sarnoff in 1916 sent a memo to the Director of the American Marconi Company that employed him, advocating the idea of a music box in the home. It was ignored.” (Understanding Media, p. 336)

This theory resonates for me, because of examples I have encountered in Manufacturing, such as the following:

  1. Machine layouts. 100 years ago, power transmissions to production machines through belts forced machines to be lined up under an overhead shaft. The advent of electrical power removed this constraint and made it possible to lay out machines at crooked angles to one another, as needed to facilitate the flow of materials. Yet you still find “shaftless layouts” of machines lined up in neat rows underneath imaginary power shafts.
  2. “Smart” part numbers. As discussed in earlier posts, “smart” part numbers are anything but in the age of databases. They may have been helpful with cards and file cabinets; now, they just make the information encoded in them hard to access and reduce databases to “cabinetless files.”
  3. SPC. Statistical Process Control, as taught today, is still based on 90-year old techniques tailored to the age of mechanical calipers, paper spreadsheets and slide rules. Implemented in software today, their primary use is to demonstrate compliance with external mandates. In mature processes, capable of holding tolerances ten times tighter than required, these techniques are unnecessary; in high-technology processes, they lack the analytical power of more modern approaches. With 21st century data science available, the quality profession is stuck at “paperless SPC.”

The real issue with the horseless carriage syndrome is that it prevents you from reaping the benefits of innovation. A major cause is management forcing the implementers of new technology or methods to justify investments exclusively in terms of their effects on existing practices, dismissing new capabilities t as “intangibles.” The remedy is learning and experimentation in an engineering sandbox, concurrently with continuous improvement in existing operations. The former lets you discover potential uses beyond current practices; the latter, where these uses can make a difference.

#HorselessCarriage, #HorselessCarriageSyndrome, #Innovation, #MarschallMcLuhan

3 comments on “Productivity and Technology

  1. Michel, your point about machines still being positioned under invisible power shafts was very profound. (The first machine I ever operated was a leather belt driven lathe . Later in my career I worked on the tool development for roll turning lathes with 200 hp.)

    Your comment also applies to many companies that still have their people positioned under an old fashioned inflexible management power system. We must provide our people with access to their own power source. I think you have identified what could be a major reason we fail to gain the productivity improvement the other power changes appear to offer.

    We have three ‘Ologies’ – Technology, Methodology and Peopleology available to drive our productivity and general improvement activities. I posted the comments below in a previous thread on productivity improvement

    Our people’s engagement is essential to our success; but we must have a holistic view and approach to the TPS/lean journey. There are 3 ‘ologies’ to assist us on our journey; they should be seen as the three sides of the same triangle.
    Technology. What technology can assist us?
    Methodology. What are the best methodologies and tools for us to use?
    Peopleology. Are we releasing and focussing the abilities* of all our people? This is the base.
    We must use the most appropriate elements of the first two ‘ologies’, and drive their use and the continuous improvement and waste elimination process with the third. Of the three ologies, only the Peopleology is exclusive to any organisation. Most technologies and methodologies are available to your competitors. The main task of the management team is to develop this unique capability. —
    We must remember our main goal is to create the most ‘Delightful/appropriate Experiences’ for our customers to enjoy. We must do this in all their direct and indirect contact with our company its products, services and people. Our survival depends upon doing this more effectively than any existing or future competitor. —
    I find the sword is a useful model to show how all the elements fit together, and are interdependent… The weapon we have to use on the global business battlefield has two edges. One is ‘Technology’; the other is ‘Methodology’. The body of the blade, which provides the mass behind these edges, is forged from ‘Peopleology’, our people’s combined abilities*. The handle through which we wield this awesome weapon is made from the skills of the management team. Lean, 6 Sigma, TOC etc are just sections of the manufacturing blade edge. —
    I find too many people think one edge, or one small section of the blade is the weapon. We must teach our companies to understand the complete weapon and how to use it. Some of our leaders can handle the Management of Battle Administration, but don’t know how to fight and win the war. I think the sword analogy describes the holistic nature of the business warrior’s task. But we must always remember Napoleon’s words about winning battles. “Morale is to materials as 3 is to 1.” —
    The final driver for this system is for managers to understand that; ‘Star managers make their people shine.’ The role of the manager is not only to demonstrate their own *ability, but more importantly to release and focus the ability of the people they lead. —
    Our ultimate goal is to create organisations that can compete successfully on the global battle field now and in the future, and are secure, challenging fulfilling and enjoyable/fun places to work. —

    *Ability has three dimensions. Talent. The ability to do existing tasks well. Creativity. The ability to improve what we do and the way we do it. Enthusiasm. The emotional ability/energy to apply the first two.

  2. Your hypothesis for the functional machine layout we still see today is very interesting. While it is enlightening as to the origins of the phenomenon, I feel it can’t explain its persistence over several decades. People and the way they organize are much more difficult to change than the technology. I suppose the engineers and managers who brought in electrical powered machines were either oblivious to how that enabled a new form of organization, or unable to push through the improved organization. Either way, it illustrates how important it is to use systems thinking. I am not talking of purely technical systems but socio-technical systems, and this makes me wonder how many companies have that competence in-house.

  3. Desk Set PromoI just saw the 1957 comedy Desk Set about the introduction of a computer by a consultant played by Spencer Tracy into a TV network’s reference department, headed by Katharine Hepburn.

    To the company’s CEO, the point is to save labor, and the reference department’s employees are quick to conclude that they are being replaced. To the consultant, it’s a tool to free the employees from routine tasks and enable them to do more and better research.

    The computer itself is a monstrosity of flashing lights, beeping sounds, and reel tapes, taking input through a typewriter and punch cards, and putting out answers with a line-printer.

    In 1957, Google was four decades in the future, but the debates on the value and the impact of technical innovation have not changed.

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