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Mike Richman

Innovation

Automation and the Quality Professional

Today’s tools are incredible, but the human soul beats the machine every time

Published: Thursday, March 30, 2017 - 12:03

For as long as humans have been humans (and for perhaps a million years before then, give or take), we’ve been tool users and toolmakers. Short of the occasional Ned Ludd supporter, most of us enthusiastically adopt new technologies to make our lives easier, more productive, or just more fun.

Today, many physical and mental tasks can be accomplished by automated tools—and not only the rote and repetitive tasks. Increasingly, true artificial intelligence is edging toward reality, with machines that can work in tight physical space around humans, interpret and adjust to real-time data, write news stories, and act as our very own, pleasant, voice-activated assistants (thanks, Alexa).

Given all this, it’s no surprise that more and more sophisticated tasks are being handled by interconnected machines that can even be programmed to learn, in a sense, from one another. So the question has been asked: Will there come a day at some point in the not-too-distant future in which “work” won’t be something that humans even do anymore?

Opportunities in addition to risks

I’ll get to my answer for that in a moment.

But first, let’s admit that with the ever-increasing focus on job protection and labor force participation, not only in the United States but in every first-world nation on Earth, the sense of concern over automation taking over industry is completely understandable. Even so, focusing on downside risk is really only considering one-half of the problem. What hasn’t been discussed quite as often are the opportunities that automation represents for workers, not the least of whom is the quality professional.

Automation is a tool, and like tools such as fire, axes, or guns (to name just a few), they can result in great benefit or terrible destruction. It’s all in how you use them. When it comes to managing quality, there are any number of automated tools that can help you better communicate, lead, learn, teach, and analyze. Here are just a few for you to consider:

YouTube/Google. It’s hard to believe that YouTube has been around for more than 12 years now; harder still to believe that Google bought the company in 2006, and yet many folks still don’t know of the existing relationship between them. A rough estimate holds that something like 120 billion videos are available on the YouTube site, and the YouTube/Google search algorithm (the company’s secret sauce) is optimized to help you find pretty much anything and everything. These should be your first stops if you have any questions about quality acronyms, terminology, methodologies, theories, or anything else. Good search is knowledge, and knowledge is power. YouTube and Google are the reigning monarchs of search.

Real-time, virtual meetings. Applications like Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and several others all enable you to meet with remote teams, with optional live video. You can share screens and documents and, by integrating your meeting with programs such as Google Drive, you and your team have the ability to view and update files in real time. Here at Quality Digest, we have a regular biweekly meeting along these lines in which each agenda item is kept to a strict time limit to prevent “meeting creep.” It’s a powerful and fast way to keep on top of projects and remotely manage the operation.

Predictive maintenance. For many years, the ability to gather and monitor the condition of key equipment through vibrational, acoustical, and infrared analysis has been the key to keeping shops and factories running at maximum efficiency by scheduling maintenance intervals based on these data. In recent years, this information has been able to be acquired via remote sensing, and automatically tied into computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS). This greatly speeds up not only information gathering, but also users’ ability to effectively analyze the information and make changes to increase the return on investment of the equipment across the enterprise.

Integrated software solutions. Whether installed or offered via a software as a service (SaaS) model, today’s quality management system (QMS) software platforms offer a wide range of options. Many can be deployed via mobile, too. With these powerful programs, you can track and manage audits, documentation, corrective actions, supplier actions, training implementations, and more. Some of these systems offer basic functionality at little to no cost. The benefits of a centralized QMS software platform are chiefly that they allow greater visibility into the many facets of an organization’s quality journey. The dissemination of, and collaboration on, key information is much more efficient than paper-based systems, email, and spreadsheets, and robust security features offer peace of mind.

For some, this list may be eye-opening; for others, it’s likely yawn-inducing. Your mileage will vary along your and your organization’s tool-using, quality-enhancing journey. Of course, this is only a tiny view into this world of automation as it applies to the pursuit of higher quality. There are many, many other options and choices that I’m surely unaware of, and I encourage you to list some others in the comments section.

Remembering what’s important

So now back to the answer to my question: Will machines evolve to the point where human work will be unnecessary altogether? Well, it’s my belief that machines will never be able to completely replicate and replace human beings in the workforce, or anywhere else for that matter. This isn’t necessarily a logical opinion; minds far greater than mine posit that artificially intelligent machines will one day—perhaps one day soon—be indistinguishable from humans. But just because an outside observer cannot tell the difference between a machine and a person does not mean that a machine is a person. The Turing Test has limitations; as elegant as it may be, it cannot detect reflection, inner dialogue, reason, self-awareness, madness, or desire. There is no test that can divine the soul.

If I’m right, then automation will never be able to make complex decisions involving the realms of emotions or psychology. These include challenging and multifaceted skills such as intuiting customer desires, overcoming the resistance to change, or managing risk with a eye toward chaos theory and group dynamics. These things can likely be programmed in such a way that machines will be able to perform these functions; they simply won’t perform them as well as people. Maintaining and continuously improving the operational excellence of an enterprise is complex, and it’s complex in an unpredictable way. It isn’t chess, with its gargantuan but finite set of options and its coldly logical progression of outcomes. Nurturing quality and sustainable excellence is a warmer endeavor that requires perspective, flexibility, and humanity. It requires a soul.

Machines will not take over our very lives and eradicate our presence in the workplace. Far from it. If the lesson of history is any guide, automation will create many more opportunities for meaningful work in which the fullness of our humanity will be a necessary component.

Quality professionals trying to come to grips with automation should embrace, not fear, the continuous changes in the tools of continuous improvement. Managing automated resources and wringing the highest possible value from those tools is the path to increased efficiency and higher productivity, and it’s the path to something else, as well—to our higher selves, to our greater fulfillment, to our own sense of purpose and quality. Use the tools available to do your job and do it well, but never lose sight of the fact that the human mind, blended with the human soul, is the best tool ever devised to improve any enterprise or endeavor.

Discuss

About The Author

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Mike Richman

Comments

AI

Theoretically an infinite number of monkeys with word processors will after some period of time, likely long enough to be indistiguishable from eternity, produce all of Shakespeare's works, but only the imagination of one human mind could produce them within the brief span of that mind.

AI may efficiently takeover many functions, but it will never write a "Hamlet", paint a Mona Lisa or script a "Blazing Saddles". Likewise, tomorrows great inventions and feats of engineering will be the works of a human who dared to dream. 

Agreed

You are undoubtedly right about the capacity of the human creative mind, Al. We can sit around the campfire, eat some beans, and discuss it further at CMSC this Summer...

Tools and soul

Great post.

My company provides real-time SPC solutions, and I'd add them to your list. These systems are doing a lot to automate and make data more visible and actionable. We're seeing new levels of value as people get beyond the drudgery of recording data, and are really able to step back and see the whole picture. And we're seeing early signs of algorithmic decision-making. It's rudimentary now, but that's where the world is going.

But even though I'm a data head, one of my favorite quotes comes from one of my customers who said, "At the end of the day, the data and the charts mean nothing. It's the conversations about the data and the charts that matter."

So yes, "never lose sight of the fact that the human mind, blended with the human soul, is the best tool ever devised to improve any enterprise or endeavor."

I'd also note that my customer's comments hinted that it isn't an individual effort - it's collaborative. It's about conversations.

Thanks!

I appreciate your words, EJ. All of us at Quality Digest agree with you wholeheartedly that sparking conversations is the reason we all do what we do. The surest path to improvement is to get smart people engaged with each other in figuring out the answers to our thorniest questions. That's the "killer app," the "secret sauce" from which all else develops. Thank you again.