You are on page 1of 3

Productivity and Technology

michelbaudin.com /2017/06/20/productivity-and-technology/

Journalist Charles Duhigg has a new book out on the subject of productivity and was being interviewed about it
on NPR. I heard him express as a general principle that new technology never increases productivity when first
implemented because organizations and individuals use it as a new way of doing exactly what they were doing
before. Over time, productivity does increases as users discover new tasks or methods that the technology
enables but were beyond the imagination of its early adopters.

We see this pattern clearly when looking back at successful innovations. Looking forward, on the other hand, we
cant assume that every current invention will have future applications that no one can envision today. Our
perceptions are biased because we only remember the inventions that have survived the shakeout of
confrontation with markets and society.

We cant generalize from past inventions, but it is true that the successful innovations have to overcome what
Marshall McLuhan called the horseless carriage syndrome. Until hearing about this last week, my only exposure
to McLuhan had been his cameo appearance in Annie Hall, in which he berates an academic for knowing
nothing about his work:

Working in Manufacturing, why should I have paid attention to the work of an academic who philosophized about
TV, radio, and print, and died in 1980, when most the media we use today didnt exist? Perhaps because he had
the ability to formulate general principles that are relevant beyond his area of expertise. Perhaps also because
his influence endures, as people who have not read his work unknowingly quote him when they say the medium
is the message, or talk about the global village.

Here is a quote from him about Manufacturing from 1964 that, with the possible exception of the choice of
examples, could have been found in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review:

Thus, with automation, for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate
jobs, it is true. That is the negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is
to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical
technology had destroyed. [] In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to
one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or
Cadillacs. (Understanding Media, p. 9)

Whether about 1964 or 2017, I would still disagree. Food processing moves faster and at a higher level of
automation than car manufacturing, and human work and association are quite different in both worlds.

Following are a couples passages introducing the concept of the horseless carriage syndrome:

The principle that produced the names wireless and horseless carriage is another instance in
that long list that illustrates how every innovation must pass through a primary phase in which the
new effect is secured by the old method, amplified or modified by some new feature.
(Understanding Media, p. 323)

The word wireless, still used for radio in Britain, manifests the negative horseless-carriage
attitude toward a new form. Early wireless was regarded as a form of telegraph, and was not
seen even in relation to the telephone. David Sarnoff in 1916 sent a memo to the Director of the
American Marconi Company that employed him, advocating the idea of a music box in the home.
It was ignored. (Understanding Media, p. 336)

1/3
Horseless carriage
Not-so-horseless carriage

This theory resonates for me, because of examples I have


encountered in Manufacturing, such as the following:

1. Machine layouts. 100 years ago, power transmissions to


production machines through belts forced machines to be
lined up under an overhead shaft. The advent of
electrical power removed this constraint and made it
possible to lay out machines at crooked angles to one
another, as needed to facilitate the flow of materials. Yet
you still find shaftless layouts of machines lined up in
neat rows underneath imaginary power shafts.

Power looms at Boott Mills, Lowell, MA

Shaftless machine shop in 2016

2. Smart part numbers. As discussed in earlier posts,


smart part numbers are anything but in the age of
databases. They may have been helpful with cards and
file cabinets; now, they just make the information
encoded in them hard to access and reduce databases
to cabinetless files.
3. SPC. Statistical Process Control, as taught today, is still
based on 90-year old techniques tailored to the age of
mechanical calipers, paper spreadsheets and slide rules.
Implemented in software today, their primary use is to
demonstrate compliance with external mandates. In
mature processes, capable of holding tolerances ten
times tighter than required, these techniques are
unnecessary; in high-technology processes, they lack the
analytical power of more modern approaches. With 21st
century data science available, the quality profession
is stuck at paperless SPC.
4.

The real issue with the horseless carriage syndrome is


that it prevents you from reaping the benefits of
innovation. A major cause is management forcing the
implementers of new technology or methods to justify
investments exclusively in terms of their effects on
existing practices, dismissing new capabilities t as
intangibles. The remedy is learning and experimentation
in an engineering sandbox, concurrently with continuous
improvement in existing operations. The former lets you
discover potential uses beyond current practices; the latter, where these uses can make a difference.

2/3
3/3