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De-automating your business could be the answer to success

We should automate the right things, in the right way and for the right reasons.

By Johan Steyn, 25 October 2023


I was recently speaking at an event hosted by a local chamber of commerce. The theme was around artificial intelligence (AI) in business. A delegate asked me about how she could perform better in her work as she often spends up to 16 hours working every day. The premise of the question was that AI and automation technologies could help her.


My response was to ask her about her work environment. Does she have access to the tools she needs to perform her work adequately? But more importantly, what changes can she make in her daily work routine? Perhaps the problem is around discipline, accepting too many meetings, lack of prioritisation or low energy levels due to dietary challenges. I am a strong believer in a common-sense approach and that technology is often not the answer.


Another person in the audience stood up abruptly and declared that I was wrong and that he strongly disagreed with my answer. He was a robotic process automation (RPA) engineer and he suggested that she consider an RPA bot to automate her daily tasks. He was fairly aggressive in his approach and it was clear to me and the audience that he did not completely understand her question. Luckily the event moderator ignored him and moved on to the next question.


Herein lies the problem with business process automation initiatives: the technologists will want to throw automation robots at every problem. The tool licencing on RPA bots is excessively high and, in my experience, rarely delivers the anticipated value and returns.


Why is it that smart people become blinded and stupid when it comes to technological solutions? Why do we forget that the end goal is not always technological advancements but rather to achieve efficiencies?


My mantra is that we should automate the right things, in the right way, and for the right reasons. If we do not understand the daily frustrations of our workers, we will attempt to automate things that will either have little positive effect on the work performed, or worse, it may actually complicate things unnecessarily.

I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s recent book Elon Musk. It is an authorised biography and is based on hours of interviews with Musk and his family, friends, colleagues and adversaries.


A large part of Musk’s success, especially at Tesla and SpaceX, is that, as CEO, he is also an engineer and has a comprehensive understanding of almost every aspect of the production line process and parts used. He often knows more than the engineers who work for him.


The other aspect of his success is that he spends a great deal of his time on the factory floor. He is known for sleeping there. If you are a CEO, can you say the same about your business? When was the last time that you, as with the popular television series Undercover Boss, actually spent time with the people who work for you — at all levels in your business — to make sure you understand their challenges, aspirations, and often hidden brilliant ideas?


Isaacson writes: “Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.”


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