A Job is only as Simple as it Is.

Scott Francis
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Keith Swenson recently wrote a great post on “Overautomation“.  This is a topic that doesn’t get too much attention outside of people trying to save jobs.  But it is a very real issue in a high tech, high automation society like our own.

I also carefully say that there are two kinds of work: routine work that should be automated, and unpredictable work that should not be automated, and it should be fairly easy to distinguish the two.  But is it?  Toyota is taking some surprising actions putting intelligent workers back in positions formerly thought to be routine.  It turns out those positions weren’t as routine as they originally thought.

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That is, they are putting people back in to routine jobs that could be done by robots.  Or could they?

The reason for doing this is very sound:  only by actually doing the job can you understand the job, and suggest improvements to the job.  It is not good enough to simply watch the robots and try to find areas of waste.  It suggests that there is more to the job than what can be seen.  That tacit knowledge comes from the manual work, as you focus your action toward an explicit goal, the mind is always working on other, tacit objectives.  For these unconscious processes to work, you need time, and you need engagement.

Apologies for the long passage – but this is important.  There is an element to quality that can only be learned by experiencing the process and the tools involved.  This is not unlike Joi Ito’s point at SXSW this year – that in order to design well, one has to produce, to lay hands on the tools.  It sounds like Toyota had a similar issue on the factory floors – they needed to experience the work with hands-on in order to accurately see the opportunities for improvement.  A similar story from GE’s Appliance division ran last year.

Keith wonders allowed if there will be a “master worker” for every business analyst – someone who does the work manually and keeps all of us process designers honest:

Sometimes there is a knowledge aspect of a job that is not obvious.  Reductionists tend to assume the job is simpler than it really is and will tend to automate some things that should not be.

This is so true, it should be the headline of the whole post.   A job is only as simple as it is.  All jobs require a bit of creativity and craftsmanship to get right.  Just because it isn’t obvious to the analyst doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  How often have we heard from various pundits that “coding is rote manual work”, or that “claims management” is rote manual work.  Both of these statements miss the point that great work requires craftsmanship, knowledge, context, and skill.  Qualities not associated with automation, per se.

Business is still a human endeavor, even with all the automation to assist.