When is Automation Doesn’t Work?

This might be a weird question to ask a computer automation company but I think there are situations when companies and people over automate without really thinking of the consequences.

In the past, I have been involved with management who have asked for a modification to the software that they felt would really improve their efficiency.  These modifications are then discussed with management and our programming staff where they are estimated for cost and timing.  They are then purchased by the company, programmed and delivered.  In a few cases, I received a phone call within minutes of installing the modification asking to take it out.  I hear, it is now taking 30 minutes to process an order that should take 30 seconds or the user doesn’t have the info we are looking to capture til much later in the process.

Obviously, I am completely taken off guard and surprised at the request.  My first assumption is that the modification caused an error in the processing and I need to get my programmer involved to look into and “fix the bug”.  But after talking to the manager for a few minutes, I hear from him that the users are now taking much more time and effort to process the data than they did before and it is affecting their productivity.  So much that the manager almost begs me to remove the modification.  In some cases it is a simple uninstall but in others, the modification is so imbedded into the software, I need to have a programmer open back up the code and revert his work.  This requires the company to pay for the programmers time to remove this “new and improved” code.

After reverting the software and putting them back to their original process, I always want to discuss with the manager to find out what happened.  I have a strong curiosity to determine what went wrong and figure out how to avoid this in the future.  In those discussions, one of 2 things are determined.

In many cases, the manager finds out the added processing isn’t worth the extra work that is needed by the end-user to complete the process.  This is often because the end-user was not consulted prior to approving a modification to the existing process.  Sometimes it is because there are other ways the end-user is performing the task that the manager did not think about or know about.

The moral of the story here is that it is always important to interview the people performing the task in order to identify any pitfalls in the decision to change a process.  Sometimes you will hear 1000 reasons why things shouldn’t be changed where 999 will just be noise, but that 1 good reason may save a whole lot of time and money.  Not only will you gain better acceptance of the change by the people doing the work, you may also find a better way of accomplishing the goal.

When is Automation too much?

Recently I went to a large box store where you have to be a member and was looking around the electronics section to see what new and fun devices are on the market.  While looking, I came upon a light bulb.  The packaging had 2 light bulbs in it and the price was $25.  At first glance, I thought to myself, I remember when light bulbs came 4 in a box and ran under $4 for the whole lot.  How did we get to the point where I should now pay more than $12 for 1 light bulb.  So I kept reading the packaging…

Not only does this light bulb light up when it is screwed into the light socket of a lamp or light fixture, but it also has the capability to be controlled by an app on the phone or computer.  Now I am old enough to remember the devices you plugged into an outlet which had a dial on it and would allow you to put a clip on the time you wanted it to go on and a clip on a time it should go off.  The dial would spin and the lamp would go on an off each and every day at the preassigned times.  But then the problems occurred.  When the power went out, the dial would not spin and the times would not need to be reset.   Or if you wanted to turn on the lamp outside of the preassigned times, you had to be a gymnast to get behind the couch to force on the lamp.  With this new light bulb, yes, if the power went off, there was no light but you don’t have to buy another device for timing the light to go on and off and you don’t have to know gymnastics to reprogram the device.

I said to myself, well that is worth a few extra bucks to get this added functionality.  But then I kept reading and I see that the light bulb can do more.  Not only can it do the usual white light, but it can do 3 kinds of white light.  And not only can it do white light but it can do every color under the rainbow.  Now I am thinking that I can really get adventurous and pick an orange color on halloween and green on st. patty’s day and any other color on all the other holidays.  Not sure this is really needed but I guess it is worth a few extra bucks.   So I keep on reading…

I see that if I have a special device and say a certain name, I can speak out loud and get the light bulb to react to me.  In fact, I can get a whole bunch of these light bulbs and tell my whole house to light up and I can pick the color of each light bulb and I can program them to pop on and off at different times of the day.  So I think about this additional feature I have found and start to wonder if we have really gone too far.  Do I really need this light bulb where I can sit in bed or on the couch and turn by house into a Christmas tree.  Have we gotten to the point we have found ways to become even lazier than we have been before.

Well, I did buy that package of light bulbs for $25 and I did install them in various places in my house and I did program them to go on and off at various times during the day but I must admit, it is really fun to play with all the colors and tell my devices to go on and off without needing to go get off the couch or going behind the couch and finally to impress family and friends with it.

Is this automation too much?  Probably – but it is fun.

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