Automation: Salvation or sin?

Automation: Salvation or sin?

Leopoldo Mitre – April 20, 2015

Processes need to be efficient before being automated. If you ask me; salvation or sin?, I'll say that automation is neither one nor the other, it is only the most effective way to -quickly and nonstop- arrive to our destination: heaven or hell.


In recent years I have met with Technology Consultants who see in computer automation a way of salvation to all business problems. Implementing processes orders and sequences by computer without the need for an operator, whether to lower costs or to sell more, no matter what the company really need, it seems that the goal is that everything works without human intervention.

And is because shielded by the story of the enormous advantages that Information Systems have brought to: manage customers, supplies or cash; these “experts” promote automation systems as the ultimate solution, regardless of a useful business analysis and the real utility of technology for business purposes.

Those who have been involved in improving business processes’ projects understand that it is not possible to automate a process that has not prove an adequate level of maturity. The rule is: automatization first have to pass through several stages: since defining a logical order of actions, to ensure that they could follow a sequence that can be repeated again and again; until you have reached an operational level in which the process will not need the experience of an operator who has to apply a decision making action. Without this automation is doomed to failure.

On the other hand, processes must be efficient before being automated, otherwise we could have a risk making mistakes only more effective (remember that effective is not the same as efficient). Worse, our misuse of technology make us believe that we are now more “modern” and therefore better. And yes, also faster, consistent and assertive… but making mistakes.

Not all repeatable process are efficient. Efficiency, to be called as such, depends on its ability to achieve the desired effect. And unless you want to produce the loss of customers or money, we should not streamline a process that do not help the company.

Here an example:

I have never asked to send me some pizza to this restaurant, one who has this homey touches -a place that has captivated me as a customer due to the high quality of its dishes and its friendly treatment-, so I show my loyalty as a frequently consumer asking them to send me some pizzas. So, after receiving publicity about their new home delivery service, which also accompanied the launch of an ‘App ‘ that the restaurant has released for ordering, is that I decide to download the application and perform my first purchase.

The application is extremely fast, so I can easily enter my data and make the purchase order. What’s more, the application invites me to try the offers that are available to customers and also the system send me a confirmation via SMS in which they estimate the delivery time. In summary wonderful. The problem comes when after two additional hours of waiting, the hunger that I have is just proportional to the awe I feel when I realized that there is no a phone number to claim the delay.

The famous “App ” has given me a serial number but no a phone number to call if something goes wrong. So I have to look at their website for a number to direct my underground litany. But when I call, the person who answers says they do not know anything about my order: as orders come “per system” the pizza is automatically released. So I am forced to travel to the restaurant to find the problem source: my order was delivered to another customer because there was no a double check process in site. So no matter they promise to refunded my money, the charge to my credit card will take several days to be already unlocked.

Now the question is what went wrong here? Who sinned?

Definitely it was not the technology, the App was very effective to lift the order and to charge me. What failed was the delivery process, supervisory controls by number of commands and planning actions in case of failure (or perhaps who failed were the “experts” who advised them how to sell online). Technology has not been guilty of immaturity of the process and that it still requires an operator able to -based on their experience- to ensure their proper management. In short, someone who ensures the efficiency of logistics process.

Years ago a good friend of mine often berated me about my inability to understand Logistic, as a terms applied for engineering. Given my professional “distortion”, aimed because my proper education in social sciences rather than the exact sciences, I used the term ‘logistics’ to name any “logical” process requiring resource planning (including humans). And therefore obviated its most important operational function: comprising “all activities necessary for obtaining and managing raw materials and components as well as the handling of finished products , packing and distribution to customers”.

Logistics therefore is a process that can be automated, but it requires that all activities can perform an aligned sequence, run in synchronization and that it had been manually and repeatedly tested to ensure its maturity. And most importantly, business logic allows us to make an operational logistics process enough as to not require the intervention of the person operating it.

If you ask me; sin or salvation?, I will say that automation is neither one nor the other, but the most effective way to quickly and nonstop arrive to our destination: to heaven or hell.