The New Age of Robots and What it Means for Jobs

I believe we have reached a turning point in the usefulness and effectiveness of industrial robots. For several decades it was pretty easy to predict wholesale adoption of “the robots will save us” mantra would be followed by failure. I still strongly believe Toyota’s method (thoughtful use of robotics to enhance people is the best strategy). But the ease of using robots to succeed in the long term is much easier today than 10 years ago.

Robot-first strategies are going to be succeeding quite a bit going forward. Those efforts will not be good enough when competing with companies using the best strategy well (but that will be rare).

I wrote some about this some previously: Technological innovation brings great opportunity for improving results and our quality of life. But transforming potential benefits into real results comes with many challenges…

Essentially I see people today too dismissive of the usefulness of robots in business. And they have past examples to point to in showing how a large commitment to robot-first failed. It isn’t that today robot-first is the best strategy, but I do believe the real world conditions have improved to make the blanket assumption that such efforts will fail as unwise.

A big part of this is that while we can simplify the argument to “robot first” or “robots helping people” it really isn’t that simple. There are many reasons why today the conditions are different than they have been. Technological and software improvements are a big part of that.

But also there is more thoughtful consideration of the advantages Toyota’s management philosophy brings. Sadly not enough, but still companies are better today at thinking and acting as if their employees have brains than they were 30 years ago. Granted there is still a long way to go, but still progress has been made it seems to me at the macro level. Many companies that are not doing as well creating systems that maximize the benefits available from using the minds of every employee as those reading this blog would hope are still doing better in that vein than was true 30 years ago.

Certainly many people today understand the vast benefits provided by industrial robots. There is reason to worry about the risks of organizations hopeful that just installing industrial robots will fix all their problems.

Industrial robots are the most advanced application of robots in business today but they are still far from plug and play solutions. They require skilled experts to have them work effectively; but the capabilities and usability have greatly increased over the last 20 years. Respect for people (and all that entails about the management system) is an important part of creating a management system to have the most success integrating robots.

C3PO android from Star Wars

My photo of C3PO at the Star Wars Interactive Exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston

We refer to industrial “robots” for machines that do jobs people used to preform in plants, but those robots are nothing like what we think of robots as a stand alone concept. In the last 20 years industrial robots have become much more “thoughtful” and have gained software that makes them seem more like “robots” in the sense that they are more than just a machine. But they still look nothing like robots. Autonomous cars look nothing like our C3PO vision of robots (androids) but are in many ways pretty robot-like (making many decisions and likely conversing with us in ways approaching out C3PO vision.

Interactive speakers (like Alexa) exhibit some of the characteristics of robots but again look nothing like our vision of them in our mind. The next 5 years will see an explosion in the use of machines much closer to our vision of robots (like the Pepper robot shown above). Smart phones already perform many aspects of the 1960s view of how robots would be making our lives easier. And small vacuums take on that specific cleaning task (without the ascetics of an android pushing a vacuum cleaner but ticking off that feature for robots to perform for us).

The ability of us to create technological solutions to accomplish tasks that required people has exploded in the last 20 years and will continue to. Lawyers are finding much of what they do can be done by a computer. Much, doesn’t mean all, obviously. Search and rescue in disaster areas is another task that robots are playing an increasing role in; and the use of robots will likely continue to grow quickly. Technology is taking over many aspects of medical care that were not long ago seen as requiring highly trained and experience medical professionals (reading scans, diagnosing illness…).

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20 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2017

These posts were the most popular posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2017 (as measured by page views, as recorded by my analytics application).

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic from my book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability

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Advice for Managers Who are Just Starting Out

John Hunter at Bryce Canyon National Park

John Hunter at Bryce Canyon National Park. See more photos from my travels.

I was interviewed by Vidal Graupera for his Managers Club blog, excerpts from that interview:

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Convincing organizations to adopt better management methods. People are very attached to historical ways of managing. While it is much harder to convince people to adopt more effective management methods than I would have predicted before attempting to do so there are strategies and tactics that help.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Read the Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes and use it as a reference to guide your actions on a weekly basis.

Learn to experiment and iterate quickly. Your main aim should be to manage the management system (which may mean the management practices used within your scope of authority or influence). As you start it will involve a significant amount of managing projects, to demonstrate your ability to deliver results, but that should be used to transition to building a strong management system.

In conjunction with quick iteration and adoption of improvements your focus should be on coaching people to help them be more effective (among other things on helping them learn how to effectively practice evidenced based decision making and continual improvement).

Read the full interview on the Managers Club website.

Read more interviews with John Hunter on improving the practice of management.

RSS feed for Management Improvement Blog Posts

You may have noticed that recently I am not publishing new blog posts as often as I have previously. This less frequent publishing schedule is likely to continue. I have added a service to allow you to read Curious Cat Management Improvement blog posts more frequently – even though I will not be publishing new posts as often.

I have created a RSS feed for select blog posts from the start of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog in 2004 (as well as other posts I have made on management improvement on other blogs). Subscribe to the John Hunter management improvement RSS feed. Doing so will add a post each day to your RSS feed reader from my past blog posts. Of course, the normal RSS feed for this blog will continue to provide access to the new blog posts that I publish.

cover image for Statistics for Experimenters

Some of the recent posts in the RSS feed include:

I hope you find this feed of my posts on management improvement over the last 12 years to a useful resource.

As I have mentioned before, using a RSS feed reader is the best way to manage your use of blogs.

I also have a RSS feed on my posts on all topics (management improvement and also investing, travel, software development, engineering…) for those of you who are interested.

Related: Popular Management Improvement Blogs Directory by Curious CatNew JohnHunter.com Websiteblogs by John Hunter

Looking in the Mirror at Customer Focus

Most organizations say they are focused on meeting and exceeding customer needs. But, as a customer, this often isn’t what I experience.

Delighting customers is critical to long term business success. Satisfied customers will remain your customers until they see the opportunity for something that might be better or is cheaper. Delighted customers are loyal and much more likely to remain customers.

Delighting customers is often about paying attention to the small details. Paying close attention to customer’s jobs to be done is a powerful tool. Then apply creative thinking and a knowledge of your industry, technical possibilities and business realities to provide solutions that delight customers.

Mirror in bathroom that is usable after a shower

Photo by a colleague of mine at Hexawise in his Japanese hotel room.

This photo shows a respect for customer’s jobs to be done. In many hotels the mirrors in the bathroom are obstructed after a shower. This mirror has been designed (with a heating element behind the mirror – applying technical engineering and scientific knowledge) to allow customers to be able to use the mirror effectively in the very common use case (after they shower). It is a small detail. It is also the kind of detail that an organization focused on customer delight will get right. Matt shared this photo on Reddit and it received over 80,000 upvotes (there is an appreciation for this improvement).

FYI Hexawise is hiring a senior software testing consultant, in case you want to go see this mirror for yourself and also to work with me and Hexawise to improve customer delight with the software that impacts our lives so much these days.

Solutions must be something that is free (improving processes often reduces costs so it is not always a matter of extra cost) or something customers will pay for (business/market realities). It isn’t useful to create a solution that your customers would like enough to pay 1% extra for if it adds 15% to your costs.

As with so many management improvement strategies how a desire to delight customers is expressed is dependant on many aspects of the existing organization. You can’t wake up on day to the wisdom of delighting customers and announce this new strategy and expect anything to really change. It is dependant on viewing your organization as a system and making the appropriate adjustments to allow the organization to be optimized to delight customers (see creating a customer of customer focus and How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture).

It is critical to design the organization to maximize the potential information generated at the point where customers interact with the organization. That is not a simple thing to do in isolation (based on the current culture of most organizations today). It requires a deep commitment to continual improvement, respect for people and all the rest of the management improvement practices I have been writing about in this blog for over 10 years now.

Related: Aligning Marketing Vision and ManagementDelighting CustomersCustomers, “Internal Customers” and End UsersWhat Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)Stated Versus Revealed PreferenceInnovation Strategy

Don’t Expect Short Quotes to Tell the Whole Story

When people try to use a short quote as an accurate encapsulation of a management concept they will often be disappointed.

It is obvious that Dr. Deming believed that organizations failed to use data effectively to improve needed to change and use data effectively in order to thrive over the long term. He believed that greatly increasing the use of data in decision making would be useful. He also believe there were specific problems with how data was used, when it is was used. Failing to understand variation leads to misinterpreting what conclusions can appropriately be drawn from data.

Using data is extremely useful in improving performance. But as Deming quoted Lloyd Nelson as saying “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”

I believe Dr. Deming would have said something like “In God we trust, all others bring data” (I haven’t been able to find a source verifying he did say it). Others don’t believe he would referencing the Lloyd Nelson quote and all Deming’s other work showing that Dr. Deming’s opinion that data isn’t all that matters. I believe they are correct that Dr. Deming wouldn’t mean for the quote to be taken literally as a summation of everything he ever said. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use a funny line that emphasized an important message – we need to stop relying so much on unsubstantiated opinion and instead back up opinion with data (including experiments).

Quotes can help crystallize a concept and drive home a point. They are very rarely a decent way to pass on the whole of what the author meant, this is why context is so important. But, most often quotes are shared without context and that of course, leads to misunderstandings.

image of quote - It is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it - a costly myth.

A funny example of this is the Deming quote that you often see: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Deming did actually say that. But without the context you get 100% the wrong understanding of what he said. Deming’s full statement is “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” Now normally much more context is required to truly understand the author’s point. But this is a funny example of how a quote can be even be accurate when passed on to you and yet completely misleading because it is taken out of context.

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The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.

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New JohnHunter.com Website

I have created a new web site for my personal site. I hope you like it.

The home page now shows selected blog posts I have written about management, as well as on other topics: investing, software development, travel, software testing, engineering, personal finance etc.. The site allows you to subscribe to an RSS feed of my posts.

An image of the johnhunter.com home page

The new site makes it easy to find the pages you desire via a drop down menu or using the search option. The site is designed with usability in mind for whatever device you use to connect to the website. Some of the popular destinations accessible from the site include:

Related: Hire Me to Manage Your Blog or Web PresenceYour Online Presence and Social Networks for ManagersCurious Cat Blog Network

Technological Innovation and Management

Technological innovation brings great opportunity for improving results and our quality of life. But transforming potential benefits into real results comes with many challenges.

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore the idea of the fourth industrial revolution: “this new era is founded on the practical use of technological innovations like artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT).”

For many years GMs huge investment in robotics in the 1980s ($billions) has been an example of how pinning hopes on technology often doesn’t produce the desired results. I think that a capable management system is needed to make technological innovation as successful as it needs to be.

In this decade we are finally reaching the point where robotics is really making incredible strides. Robotics has provided huge benefits for decades, when used appropriately, but the ease of use and benefits from robotics have greatly increased recently.

I think robotics is going to be an incredibly powerful source of benefits to society in the next 20 years. Amazon is very well placed to profit in this area. Several other companies (Toyota, Boston Dynamics*, Honda, SoftBank…) are likely to join them (though which will be the biggest winners and which will stumble is not obvious)

Cliff Palace historical ruins

Photo by John Hunter of Cliff Palace (built in the 1190s), Mesa Verde National Park.

I am less confident in the Internet of Things. It seems to me that much of the IoT effort currently is flailing around in ways similar to GMs approach to robotics in the 1980s and 1990s. There is huge potential for IoT but the architecture of those solutions and the impact of that architecture on security (and fragile software that creates many more problems than it solves) is not being approached wisely in my opinion. IoT efforts should focus on delivering robust solutions in the areas where there is a clear benefit to adopting IoT solutions. And that needs to be done with an understanding of security and the lifecycle of the devices and businesses.

I think it will be much wiser to have an internet hub in the business or home that has all IoT traffic route through it in a very clear and visible way. Users need clear ways to know what the IoT is trying to do and to have control to determine what is and what is not sent out from their system. Having devices that share information in a non-transparent way is not wise. This is especially when those devices have cameras or microphones.

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Lessons on Competition from Mother Nature

An interesting short article by Joel Barker with some ideas to think about, Surviving the Fittest: New Lessons on Competition from Mother Nature:

As a result of this emerging body of research, we now must reexamine our competitive paradigm and factor in the new information. It is now clear that ‘the fittest’ not only don’t win all the time, but are only a piece of the more complex system. This information can lead to new strategies for small companies and new insights for the big companies that presently dominate their industries.

The idea that what is winning right now is best is flawed. What is successful now is dependent on the larger system and the conditions that impact that system. In the news the last few days British Airways had to shut down flights worldwide. This has happened numerous times for major airlines in the last few years.

view from a train in Rocky Mountain National Park with tree and snow covered mountains in the background

By John Hunter, see more of my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The systems that they settled on may seem to be working well for years and then suffer catastrophic failures. Why did they accept systems that could fail so completely? Given the frequency it is happening numerous competitors are choosing solutions that are too fragile. And it isn’t just one organization doing it, numerous huge airlines (United, Delta, British Airways, Southwest) have found themselves caught in a situation where they fail to deliver what customers pay for due to so complete a failure of their IT system that they cannot fly any planes many hours in a row.

I suppose this could be evidence that designing an IT system for a huge airline is not something that can be done with the reliability we expect from most things (that the business doesn’t have a day every decade or two where they business just can’t operate that day). But I doubt it. It seems much more likely the existing system creates organizations that are more focused on other things than building a reliable, robust IT infrastructure.

A post I wrote on my Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog a few years ago, 500 Year Floods, looked at the problem of making judgements about unknown systems. The concept of 100 and 500 year floods is to help us make decisions about long term planning and risks. Looking at an area to build a building (or city) can be aided by history and seeing what the area has experienced in the past. But you can’t just assume the future will be the same as the past. Systems change over time. What worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work well in the future.

And as I mentioned in my article, our evidence and understanding also changes (hopefully by us gaining more knowledge and gaining a clearer understanding as we learn more). Thinking systemically takes into account the impact of interactions on results. Results are not independent of the circumstances.

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