Productivity, Automation, And Robots

Journalists and other authors who should know better routinely conflate productivity increase with automation and automation with the introduction of robots. “Productivity” covers a set of performance metrics that are increased by a variety of methods, many of which do not involve automation. Automation sometimes increases productivity, but not always. Finally, most of the time, automation does not involve robots. At last Tuesday’s Palo Alto Lean Coffee, I asked Tesla’s Omar Guerrero and Genentech’s Curtis Anderson for examples of changes that had increased productivity in their organizations.

At Tesla, Omar works in service. In the “before” mode of operation, cars arriving for service were assigned to one technician who then performed the service from start to finish. Now each car is assigned to a lead technician who assesses the work that needs to be done and estimates how many technicians can work on it in parallel, and a corresponding team joins the lead. The work is completed faster and the technicians spend less time waiting for jobs. This change in the organization of the work increased productivity with no robots and no technology.

Genentech is a pharmaceutical company and, as Curtis explained, mandated to follow complex procedures when making any change to products or manufacturing processes. Their productivity improvement efforts have lately been focused on the acceleration of these procedures by making them more collaborative, mapping them and eliminating redundant checks. This, too, involves no robots and no new technology.

Mail robot at FBI office in The Americans

The FX show The Americans revived a piece of early 1980s technology that illustrates how introducing robots does not necessarily increase productivity: the mail robot. This contraption roamed the hallways and delivered paper mail to offices on its path. The notion that it would increase productivity is clearly ridiculous when you consider that you are replacing a cart with a human attendant with more expensive equipment and an engineering staff to program and maintain it. In the story, Soviet spies manage to bug it while it is in Maintenance and then get to transcribe hours of pointless office chit-chat every day.

A massive increase in the productivity of mail operations would come a few years later, through email, not robots.