Opinionista Mark Hennessy 4 November 2011

People are too valuable to be used as machines

“We cannot afford to use people to do work that machines can do.” This was said to me by a Japanese ITC manager in 1968. It still works for me.

I was visiting Japan with a group of my customers to see the incredible automated system that NHK – the Japanese Broadcaster – had implemented to manage the entire television production and broadcasting process. It was a system that, even today with all the progress that has been made in the computer and process control fields, would look entirely modern – except for the physical size of the computers and the infrastructure to house them.

I had gone to Japan with the preconception that this was a country with an oversupply of unskilled labour, unskilled for the building of an modern economy that is. In fact that was not inaccurate. Japan was having to build a modern industrialised economy on the base of a mainly rice farming peasantry who lacked the background and skills that one would have expected to be required to achieve that aim.

I had been “blown away” by the degree of automation that I was seeing, not only at NHK, but everywhere. At a time when automatic electric doors were almost unknown here and elsewhere, every door in Japan, even those in taxis, seemed to be electrically operated. Electric cash registers were replacing the soroban, the Japanese abacus at which they were so adept, in every shop – although I must say that was a pity. And so it was in every aspect of life and commerce; if it could be mechanised, they were doing it.

Puzzled by this mismatch between my understanding of what was required in an economy that had to absorb an oversupply of unskilled labour into the industrialising and urbanising economy, I had asked the manager quoted above why it was that there was so much automation, when I had expected that that would seemed to be the opposite of what was needed. His reply was that Japan had no natural resources to speak of other than one or two very small coal mines. Their only natural resource was their people and if those people were not more productive than the other more fortunate, in terms of resources, nations of the world, they would starve to death. Hence “we cannot afford to use people to do work that machines can do!”

In subsequent years, I had the privilege of working on projects with Japanese companies, mainly in the steel industry, and was able to observe how they applied technology to making the best use of what we would regard as unskilled labour. Not only did they provide them with employment but they made them productive, long-term contributors to the economy, rather than a drag requiring economic support.

One example was the use of people in the process of making steel and matching the output to the orders that were required. They had learned to value the human ability to make almost instantaneous judgments based on the information available to them and the requirements of the situation, which were almost impossible to program into a computer.

Certainly at that time, the production of a given quality of steel from a furnace was not a precisely predictable engineering process. There were too many variables at work in the furnace. One never really knew what quality of steel would come out of the furnace until the molten metal actually came out. The downstream processing of the steel through the rolling mills depended on the quality that had emerged and ideally could be matched to the orders that were on the mill for the various types of steel product, so that a minimum of steel would end up in the stock yards waiting and hoping for orders.

In the first flush of the computer era, the Spencer plant in the UK had set out to overcome this problem by developing a fully computerised solution, with the computer being programmed to do all the decision-making. It was a dismal failure. The Japanese companies on the other hand, companies like Nippon Steel, took a much logically simpler approach. They put people in the decision making positions and let computer processing provide them with the best and most current information available as to the quality of the steel that was coming down the line and the state of the order book. These people then made the judgment decision of matching which batch of steel to match with which order,  which led to the automated decision defining the process that should be followed in its production. This then was passed on in real time by the computer system to the operators on the various processing rollers and mills as the cooling steel moved through the plant.

The point is that these people did not need a high level engineering education to perform these judgments. All they needed was a narrowly defined training in the qualities of steel and how they matched the end products ordered by customers together with practice and the tolerance by management of the errors that would occur. The benefits to through flow in the plant and the consequent reduction of working capital far outweighed the cost of the occasional mismatch that ended up in the stockyard awaiting a suitable order. So “people from the paddy fields” could, in a short space of time, become highly valuable operators adding enormously to the productivity of the economy.

In addition to the direct skilling that these operators gained, there was what I like to think of as the second level of learning that comes through experience and familiarity with any job. They learned about flow processing in general terms and would have understood the processes involved in many other processing industries. They became familiar and comfortable with computer systems and equipment etc., and most importantly, they learned how to learn and gain experience. 

So what is the relevance of this to the current South African situation with its dire need to turn a vast pool of unskilled labour into productive contributors to the national economy?

There is a distinct danger that, in the face of the need to provide the maximum labour absorption into the economy, automation and mechanisation will be regarded as inimical to the achievement of this objective, whereas the Japanese experience points to the exact opposite. Automation and mechanisation aids the process of absorption of unskilled labour productively into a modern economy. The people should be seen as a valuable natural resource available to the economy which, like any other resource, should be subject to the maximum beneficiation possible.

Let us take an example say of fixing potholes. There may be a temptation to believe that the minimum technology should be provided to the workers so that more people will be needed to complete a given task. If we do that, then those workers will never rise above the level of the “pick and shovel brigade”. The task will take longer to complete and have a variety of drag factors on the economy. The cost of damaged wheels, suspensions, tyres etc. The time wasted changing wheels and repairs and so on. However if, on the other hand, the maximum use is made of technology, not only will the job be completed more quickly with all the ancillary benefits that will bring, but those workers will have been up-skilled to be able to use more complex machinery. At the second level of knowledge, all tools are fundamentally similar. They consist of an energy source/storage, an energy to work conversion mechanism, a control function and a tool specialised to the task at hand. Hence a person who learns to operate one tool, has at some level, learned about all tools. A person who has learned to operate a roller has at some level learned to operate any vehicle etc.

Similarly a person that has learned to enter and retrieve information from a computer terminal, which in itself requires no greater competence than to be able to read and type, not even write, has become far more valuable to the economy and themselves than a person restricted to performing clerical tasks on paper. And once having become familiar with a basic computer terminal, they are well on the way to an understanding computers and information systems in general and benefiting from further training. You do not need a computer science degree to take that first step. Two finger typing and the ability to read is all that is required.

I think that it is important that, in the face of the overwhelming need to absorb people classified as un- or low-skilled into the economy, we do not succumb to luddite thinking with regard to technology, but learn from the Japanese – people are too valuable to be used as machines. DM



"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky