Gemba Keiei Chapter 24: Fight the Robot Fad

“We only started talking about ‘reduced volume production’ after the 1973 oil shock. Prior to that we could sell everything we made so cost reduction for mass production was easier.” Ohno goes on to say that although many other industries learned to cut cost with reduced volumes, to this day (ca. 1982) most automotive companies still think in terms of volume and not cost.

Taiichi Ohno warns against taking the short cut of using robots or automation before doing cost reduction first. “I think many are using robots because it is a fad. People think they need robots to keep up appearances, not really thinking about the effect of robots on cost.”

Ohno continues, “We’re not against robots or computers, both are necessary for progress. But don’t ignore the issue of how these things reduce cost. Robot manufacturers may not like my saying this. On the other hand, there is an Englishman who said that the use of robots and automation should be internationally banned around the year 2000, so perhaps you should buy them now while you can.”

By coincidence, there was an interview in today’s Asahi newspaper (June 7, 2006) with the President Nakayama of Yaskawa Electric Corp:

Q: In manufacturing sites, some workers voice concern that their jobs may be taken over by robots. How do you see the situation?

A: In the near future, robots would come to take over simple labor and physically demanding work. Eventually, as aging advances and the Japanese population declines, some industries would have to be thoroughly automated with robots or else they would disappear from Japan.

Still, robots cannot take over creative work and kaizen (progressive improvement) activities that Japanese companies are good at. It is important for humans and robots to coexist in harmony.

Important is an understatement. We visited Yaskawa Electric Co. earlier this year. Luke writes about Yaskawa here where he describes the scene of robots building robots as “surreal”. This clever book may prepare you for the day robots building robots gain artificial intelligence and decide that coexistence in harmony with humans is not to their liking.

Ohno admits that for sustained high volume production it makes sense to use robots, and for work that is unsafe for people robots should be used even at a higher cost. But Ohno says robots should not be used merely for the fad of “modernization”.

Ohno tells how his students at Toyoda Gosei would say to him “We can automate this process” but Ohno warned them against taking the step to use robots or to automate too easily. Automation should follow the proper steps, and be driven by a need. He likens it to buying a piano just because your neighbor bought a piano, regardless of whether you have musical talent.

Taiichi Ohno says the number one need for robots is to reduce cost. Following the principle of respect for people, robots should also be used to perform operations unsafe for humans even at a higher cost. He says sometimes a robot can not perform a dangerous or unpleasant task and a person must do it. However, people should not perform unsafe work because it is cheaper than using a robot.

“The worst use of automation is as a toy for engineers or kaizen specialists.” Says Ohno. This robot created by Toyota at the exhibition hall plays a mean trumpet. A technological marvel perhaps, but what would Taiichi Ohno say about this toy?

Ohno predicts the words of President Nakayama of Yasawa Electric by saying “As labor cost increases in Japan and as the population ages there may come a day when robots will replace human workers in Japan.”

Ohno ends the chapter by asking the question “If the robot fad continues and we replace people with robots this is a problem. Robots don’t complain or ask for raises. Using robots to reduce cost may be good for the corporation, but is it good for the whole?” There must be harmony between cost saving technologies and the needs of humans, whether the “technology” is robots, outsourcing, office automation or Lean manufacturing.