How Quality Supports Balance Between Human Workers and Intelligent Robots

Feb 03, 2022

This series explores how to ignite excitement and make quality relevant in your organization.  "Quality" is very rarely seamlessly assimilated into daily operations.  This series will dive into what traditional operations-centric organizations value most and how to plug "quality" in to support those values.  

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As cited in previous installments of this series, "QualiFIRE", Forbes Magazine published 8 Business Trends for 2022, a major one being the desire for BALANCE between human workers and intelligent robots.  So, if this is important, how can our quality practices support this value?  

With the current business trends of "working from anywhere" and the "Great Resignation", this balance is more important than ever for businesses to consider.  It raises the questions:

  • What roles should be given over to machines?
  • How will organizations prepare their organizations – and their people – for the changing nature of work? 
  • How can error proofing reduce risk introduced by human workers or create risk by automation being too inflexible?


As the pendulum swings between excitement about technology and the basic need for human interaction, businesses find themselves trying to strike a delicate balance.

Technology and automation can provide great advances in efficiency and speed, as well as reducing errors.  However, these solutions can also be rigid and inflexible by their very nature.  Algorithms and workflows are becoming more fluid with more possible paths, however, they're still no match for human interaction and intervention where appropriate. 

Traditional quality systems focus on the customer experience, customer outcomes and customer-centric processes, but may not put much focus on efficiency, ease or speed.  And sometimes, in parallel, continuous improvement efforts may include lean and Six Sigma tools that focus on improving efficiencies and/or effectiveness of processes, but may not lean into the customer or user experience to a great extent. 

Businesses are also trying to manage the human and social impacts of technology.  As consumers, we've all been frustrated by automation in place of human interaction.  Who hasn't had the experience of needing help outside of the available choices of an automated system, where human contact couldn't solve a simple problem?  Worse yet, most of us have been burdened with doubling our workload as consumers as our providers "improve" their processes through technology.  Ever had to fill out paperwork online to even schedule an appointment, only to arrive and repeat the process all over again on paper, and THEN watch an admin re-enter much of the same data you've already given twice?!  

And there's the social impact in today's climate of business's social responsibility.  Companies must create a user experience that suits both people who embrace the speed and convenience of technology with those who prefer connection and a human experience.  Companies are also manifesting their values as global members of society as an extension of their core business functions.


Companies routinely look for efficiency improvement opportunities through automation.  But, it's pretty common for companies to implement automated systems and install automated equipment through the use of outside consultants, support and subcontractors.  This automation may move or displace people, but does not necessarily transition them into new work.

Too often, strategic plans focus on seeking out new and emerging technologies to gain efficiencies, reduce waste and increase profit margins, without a plan to grow their people alongside these improvements.  Generally speaking, society has recognized the need for more education focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics).  This is in response to leaning away from unskilled and low-skilled labor and more toward specialized skills, training and abilities.  But, the organization is assuming an unlimited availability of both resources and that it will be able to exchange these at will.  The pandemic has shown us the real flaw in this logic.  We MUST have an intentional strategy for developing ALL of our resources in alignment with our strategic plans and vision. 


Error proofing is a common approach to tradition problem solving - whether it's old school quality systems, or CI/lean/Six Sigma/etc.  And error proofing is often deployed in response to the pain of a human making a mistake in a process specifically designed NOT to make mistakes.  We've all heard the saying, "if you make something idiot proof, someone will just make a better idiot" - rude, yes, but also true.  And yet, error proofing is still the best protection to avoid making mistakes.  But, there must also be balance in the design of an error proofing practice, workflow or device.  If too rigid, a small problem can confound the system to the point that it cannot be overridden by a human that can easily put the process back on track. 

I recently listened to a 30-minute conversation in a very high value engineering meeting trying to find a workaround to an inflexible procurement system.  The group were trying to find a way to be sure a supplier would be paid for an additional service they were more than willing to provide to solve a problem for the customer.  The system would require a change to a purchase order, which would require the entire approval process to be repeated, without which the supplier could not be paid.  A simple solution was made nearly impossible by an inflexible "error proofed" system.   Change management systems struggle with maintaining this as well.  Where is the balance between understanding the significance of the impact of making a change and the system's ability to accept it?

Also, as users of technology in business, how much input is required v what is the value of the output?  Much like quality initiatives, many, MANY implementations of technology have involved huge commitments of time, money and effort with a long-term result of less than expected outcomes.  

This week's HOW TO GET IT DONE:

1.  Take a broad look at your organization's automation.  What is the user experience within your organization?  Once implemented, do the users frequently assess its effectiveness and overall ease of use?  Is this an integral part of your continuous improvement process?  Repeat with the customer experience.  Is there a good balance between the customer's automation within your processes and accessibility to human contact?

2.  Consider your long-range strategic plans and capital improvement approval process.  Do your plans for technology innovations include the consideration of human workers and their skills?  Does your company have both a technology improvement plan and some sort of human resource development plan?  (Don't bother coming for me regarding terminology of human resource, human capital, human assets, etc - you get it).  Be sure to develop a parallel path for your "most valuable resource" (as a group) to mature and follow the organization on its technology advancement journey.  And be sure to commit the necessary investment to fulfill that vision.

3.  Take a moment to really investigate and reflect on the technology your organization has deployed and have a look at the "goesintas" v the "goesouttas" - this is an old nod, sort of like GIGO (garbage in = garbage out).  Do the columns balance out?  Does all the input result in useful output or is the input more of a burden to all and not worth the effort.  Adjust to find a better balance.  This is an important conversation and, done with the right engagement, goes a long way to foster trust by all that initiatives will not only be declared and deployed, but revisited with user input so everyone understands the meaning and value of their work. 

4.  Commit some time to looking back on your intentional error proofing solutions and/or continuous improvement initiatives already completed.  Have they been revisited to explore the user or customer experience for even more improvement opportunities?  One of the biggest snags quality and CI initiatives stumble over is they start with a big bang, but don't go far enough.  We get excited about an initiative and race to a finish line.  But, without judicious (and patient) follow through and re-evaluation, the good results often wane.  My advice is to do fewer CI projects or initiatives, but do the vital few really, really well.  And, you'll realize more value from your efforts because the improvements will be significant, long lasting and inspiring to keep the improvements going.


One of the most important things to remember, all-the-time, is that quality efforts exist for the sole purpose of supporting successful operations and the customer experience.  Our constant pursuit must be to leverage our management systems (ISO9001, ISO45001, ISO14001, IATF16949, AS9100, etc) PLUS our lean practices PLUS our Six Sigma tools PLUS our continual improvement efforts toward the achievement of better outcomes for operations and the customer experience.  

For some new ideas on this, get Tribal Knowledge - The Practical Use of ISO, Lean and Six Sigma Together, a simple guide to UNITE ISO9001, lean and Six Sigma to create a robust quality system with better results.  Read what ASQ American Society for Quality – Quality Progress Magazine had to say about it. 

Or for targeted, personalized support and coaching, let’s develop your skills as a quality advocate.  Available weekly, monthly or whatever best suits your needs!  We'll create a routine around your real professional situation.  Whether it's a specific project you're working on or general organizational management, you'll learn how to be an effective champion for quality.

And finally, for onsite consultation and training on any of your quality challenges, quality management systems, problem solving (root cause analysis), risk assessment (FMEA, SWOT), internal audits, management review connect with us today and we'll create a program tailored specifically for your organizations needs to get MORE VALUE out of your quality efforts.  No boring classroom conceptual training with too much "quality speak", just plain talk about how to get better outcomes.




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