Is talk of your automation initiatives causing employees to freak out?

Automation initiatives are much more common than they were even as recently as five years ago. It is safe to say that the vast majority of workers, not only in the US, but the world over, have personally witnessed some form of awe-inspiring automation, whether it be in the form of a five-axis robot, or simply watching the precision and speed of a pneumatic pick and place gripper arms, or the marvels of the kiosks at a grocery store.

Automation is not only the privilege of the wealthy nations. Surprisingly, automation projects in low-cost labor countries like China and India are now commonplace. China is outpacing the United States in the number of robots installed.

1 in 3 people in the world is projected to own a smartphone by 2019. If you pause to think about the fact that 1 in 2 people in the world lives on less than $2.50 per day, then the previous statistic demonstrates the staggering penetration of smartphones throughout the world, across all income levels. Having carried such incredible power in their pockets, people in all strata of society are well aware, personally, that the world is changing and rapidly!

Therefore, when headlines like this – “McKinsey: One-third of US workers could be jobless by 2030 due to automation” keep appearing at a greater frequency, people sit up and take notice. They have experienced the power of AI first-hand.

However, nobody knows how automation and AI are going to affect humanity. Experts and industrialists continue to make predictions. But frankly, nobody knows for sure. One can postulate and hypothesize various scenarios and run different models, but the future is no vision in a crystal ball. It is simply unknown!

Are people going to be displaced by robots? I don’t think so. Neither do a majority of experts. However, a few prescient intellectuals seem to think that humans will be displaced by robots. Do we believe them or the majority of those who think to the contrary? Consider the fact that there were a handful of people who foresaw the 2008 global meltdown versus the euphoric majority of experts who did not have a clue of the catastrophic ton of bricks that eventually fell on their collective talking heads as well as the rest of the world. Well, if someone asked a similar question at that time – who do you believe….? So, you see what I am getting at. Forecasts are only forecasts! People will believe and do what they inherently feel comfortable with, real or perceived.

People are extremely nervous about automation! Period!

In this scenario, it is vital to make sure that companies make every effort to keep their entire workforce informed and educated about any automation projects that they are undertaking. This is no different than prior improvement initiatives in the history of manufacturing. TQM, Lean, Six Sigma, and now automation. It is all about eliminating waste and reducing costs. Reducing costs are what people freak out about. Why? Because, the last time the company got into a cost crisis, they laid off a bunch of people.

Cost reduction = Loss of Jobs

Automation = Cost Reduction

Automation = Loss of Jobs.

Mental math is simple. It is immediate unless it is preempted by knowledge, training, and education.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I visited a company looking to implement automation all across their operations. As I was walking through one of the Plants with the person showing me the “Current State”, we were asking questions of how operators currently did their jobs. After understanding the current state, we would propose a Future State automated line and demonstrate the ROI and all that. However, what appeared to be a very paranoid Group Leader, asked my escort questions about why he was interested in the process. What transpired was very painful for me to watch. Visibly uncomfortable, my escort, made some vague and generic comments about the reason for our presence that day on the floor. Phrases like “Looking at Automating…..”, “….don’t worry….”, “….won’t lose your job…..”, “….make your job better…., and so on. I cringed and became extremely focused and interested in a bin of parts a few feet away from the discussion. My escort came to me after a few minutes and we continued our “Current State Discovery” walk.

No more than 30 minutes after that we were accosted by a furious Shop Superintendent who asked my escort what he had told the person who was the subject of the earlier discussion. The Superintendent told my escort that the word had spread throughout the shop that the company was bringing in robots and a lot of people would lose their jobs. People were worried and asking if they should be looking for other jobs. With a near-zero unemployment rate in their county, the Superintendent certainly was not relishing the prospect of half her crew not showing up the next day having been scared off to other jobs. She was not a happy camper!

Wow!! Word travels fast! Bad information rushes in to fill a vacuum. There was a vacuum of understanding on the shop floor.

Before embarking on any automation initiative, talk to your people. Explain the reasons behind the need for automation. The prime driver for embarking on automation is not necessarily labor cost reduction. It is typically driven by quality improvement or throughput improvement, among other reasons.

Coming back to my example….

Had the management at that company taken the time to educate all their employees about the fact that they could not keep up with production demands and they did not have any more people to bring in because of the labor shortage. That was why they were working 7 days a week for the past three weeks. People like their overtime checks. Undoubtedly. For a while. However, people like their time off and weekends with families, fishing and camping, even more. Nobody likes working 7 days a week non-stop for weeks at a time. However, so many companies are forced to do that. Especially now with a booming economy in the US, this scenario is commonplace.

A simple 10 – 15-minute all-hands meeting with the shop floor employees would have brought them all on-board with drivers behind the automation initiative. They would have been eager to help and make sure that all the information about the current state was conveyed. Who does not want to enjoy summer weekends?

If your employees are freaking out because of the automation initiatives that you are putting in place, then there is no doubt that the proper groundwork was not done. Dig deep into the root cause of why you are doing the automation. You will find that it is driven by something other than hacking away at a productive and loyal workforce!

This article was also published on the Phoenix blog by Rahul Sarkar on January 16, 2018.

#Automation #JobLoss #ChinaAutomation