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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

On Asiana, Driverless Cars, and Factories

Is technology weakening our basic skills?

Published: Thursday, July 3, 2014 - 12:23

I’ve always been interested in technology—its uses, advantages, and disadvantages. Regular readers know that I often advocate for manual solutions first, like whiteboards to run factories and a handwritten notebook for notes.

Some believe that I’m against technology, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m more like the guy that stands in line at the Apple Store to spend money on the latest iPhone that is supposedly (though in reality indistinguishably) better than the previous version. A few weeks ago there was a long discussion about this topic in the Lean CEO LinkedIn group, and after more than 100 comments, we all had to basically agree to disagree.

My belief is that you need to first understand and improve the underlying process, and only then apply technology to further refine and automate it. Otherwise you may simply automate waste, which is not true improvement. Manual methods also create more learning and understanding, which builds the foundation for improvement.

Holman Jenkins recently penned an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal that brings up another downside of technology—losing the understanding of the underlying process, and how to control it in the first place:

“As nobody disagrees, Asiana Flight 214's crew failed in a basic task, keeping track of the plane's airspeed on final approach. Before they could correct their error, the plane's tail smacked a sea wall, breaking off.

"The chief pilot later claimed ‘it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane,’ according to the NTSB, which would seem to indicate the real problem: The crew was nonplussed, perhaps nearly panicked, at the prospect of having to maintain a proper glidepath without help from the airport's sophisticated landing aid.”

That’s basic flying. Yes, there were also cultural issues involved. The downside of a culture deeply respectful of elders and superiors was in play when communication between pilot and copilot was delayed.

We were warned.

“Diligent annotators of this column will recall Captain Malcolm Scott from nearly a decade ago, who criticized a British Airways decision to ban manual thrust control (which Asiana's pilots should have employed to maintain the plane's airspeed) by its Airbus pilots,” writes Jenkins. “Flying skills would atrophy, he warned, suggesting that the industry's implicit goal was to remove the human factor from the cockpit altogether.”

Jenkins goes on to draw a link to the current fascination with Google’s driverless cars. The nascent technology is working surprisingly well, even at this early stage, and many are predicting full adoption by 2020.

But what will happen to our skills to actually... drive?

Even Porsche, builder of driving machines for purists, has so refined their PDK doppelkupplung automatic transmission that 0-60 times are faster in an automatic than with a stick. They are even considering eliminating manual transmissions as an option. But is the purpose of driving a Porsche to go faster off the line, or to experience driving? An automatic does make it easier to hold your latte, which I guess is why cup holders also had to be installed. Is that what driving a Porsche has devolved to? Unfortunately, for many, yes.

What will happen if the software or system fails? Will we just sit there staring at each other hoping we don't go into a wall, or worse?

An analogous situation exists with many forms of technology in factories and organizations. We feed data into the machine and trust that the supposed best practice algorithms created thousands of miles from the gemba will optimize operational performance. We’re confident that the software geeks at SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle know best how to deal with the nuance of our situations, even to the point of limiting the ability to modify and improve. Ya right...

As Jenkins points out: “In practice, though, all cars would likely have to be driverless—or at least capable of taking control away from a driver in heavy traffic situations—for any cars to be driverless. Otherwise, effectively one jerk in a '74 Buick would own the only right of way.”

Maybe that’s actually the opportunity: An organization that has a team of folks that actually know how and why the operation works, instead of relying on pre-programmed algorithms, can take the right of way. They can find the weaknesses in the algorithms used by others, improve, and exploit them as a competitive advantage.

Systems are great, but so is the joy of actually driving a car, the safety of understanding how to fly, and the opportunity of truly understanding and running an organization—not just letting technology do it.

First published June 28, 2014, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.