Machines Must Serve People

Our job as advocates of REAL Lean has been to humanize the workplace mainly by showing leaders and managers that the “Respect for People” principle is a business necessity rather than something that is optional, by showing how the “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” principles are interrelated, and that it is the “Respect for People” principle that enables the “Continuous Improvement” principle – not the other way around.

We now have the added job of ensuring the workplace is humanized as machines (computers, robots, and software) and people interact more closely. There is urgency to this new task because we now hear of many examples of Lean transformation that have been driven backwards by enterprise software systems and similar technology because they lack Lean intelligence.

In Lean Is Not Mean, I wrote (Lesson 39, “Can Lean Compete?”):

“Can Lean management compete with technology-driven business processes? Will Lean evolve in response to this? Can REAL Lean be made part of how machines think and how they process material and information? Who will do that, software developers? Will machine-made Lean created by software developers promote continuous improvement? Will RoboLean serve and respect humanity?”

So far, the software developers have created a limited and inflexible form of continuous improvement (i.e. automating tasks). To date, these information technology systems do a poor job of respecting the people who use it or are subjected to it. Managers are left to deal with those shortcomings after the fact – assuming they even take the initiative. Instead, software developers must take on that task and design “Respect for People” into the code that runs the machines.

The rule in Lean management – which should be no surprise – is that machines must serve people, not the other way around. This view goes back to the 1920s, where  Frank Woollard, the great pioneer of the development and use of automation (automatic transfer machines) in flow production, observed:

“We must always remember that men were not made for machines, but that machines were made for man… the motto must be… ‘Machines in the Service of Man’.”

We see machines determine the process that people engage in, and drive them in almost the same way as the unforgiving task-masters drove people in the shop and office 100 years ago. It must be the other way around: people determine the process which software supports. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because most software developers have little experience with analog Lean, its principles, methods, or tools. And, leaders have always been seduced by turnkey products that promise to quickly improve productivity. They do not check to see if the technology is consistent or inconsistent with the “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” principles, or with their overall Lean transformation efforts.

My view is that information technology systems will not reduce the need for Lean. I believe it will expand the need for Lean principles and practices in order to avoid outcomes that are bad for humans, especially employees (bad in terms of job loss, mental and physical health, etc.). It’s our job to humanize both management and machines. So far, our efforts for humanizing leaders, to get them to understand the “Respect for People” principle, has seen very limited success.

Perhaps some day machines can be made to do a better job than humans because they lack the troublesome amygdala that so distracts leaders in business settings. Maybe one day we will see the headline: “Robots Seize Workplace. ‘Respect for People’ Principle Finally Becomes Reality.” Too bad it had to come to that.

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