Automation and Productivity: When Automation Doesn’t Make Us Productive
I recently bought some light bulbs from Lowe’s. I realized when I got to the car that although the halogen bulbs looked the same, the pins were slightly off. I went back in, found the right bulbs and asked to exchange them. Same price, different SKEW.
Hopefully someone from Lowe’s will read this blog entry and head their own tag line.
I would have to return the bulbs and then repurchase the new ones. No problem. But there was a problem. The computer wasn’t updated. I had to wait, I was told, up to 20 minutes for the transaction to clear. I went to Costco, did my shopping. I returned to Lowe’s.
Before computers, a savvy customer service person (I know, we didn’t need customer service people before computers :)) would have just given me the new bulbs and said, “here you go sir, be happy.” I think the Lowe’s person could have done that too, but she didn’t. She decided to act constrained and unempowered.
The deeper problem? In the rush to productivity organizations design systems that displace function with dysfunction. In this case, the productivity of inventory control and rapid scanning by the sales clerk resulted in a customer who could not turn a quickly realized mistake around.
This happens because we don’t design systems holistically, and in this case, Lowe’s did not design the work experience adequately for the sales clerk (who upon my return, was now the customer service representative)—nor for the customer.
All organizations should strive to design rational systems. They also need to empower people to deal with the irrationality of systems that don’t’ meet that mark—and in doing so, compensate for irrationality by acting rational themselves.
(For more on Automation and Productivity read Management by Design for ways to think yourself out of these problems before you create them.)