When Automation is Stupid

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

I don’t know how many times I’ve passed through this section of Narita airport. Only yesterday did it strike me how stupid this moving walkway was. It is all of 18 paces long. Hardly worth breaking your stride to step onto, only to have it give you a minimal speed boost just in time for you to step off again. Moving walks can be a convenient way of helping people move through an airport if they have baggage, children or other mobility issues. There is a perfectly fine set of moving walk belts connecting the two sides of the south wing of Narita airport, parallel to passport control. But this mini-conveyor just struck me as stupid. So I stopped and took some pictures.

The dark figure in the background to the left is the nice policeman who was alerted to the presence of a suspicious foreigner taking photos of important airport infrastructure. I explained that this walkway seemed to be a rather wasteful use of space, energy and airport funds. I didn’t mention my dangerous plan to blog it to the world.

Not ten┬ápaces away from the end of said stupid walkway was another technological marvel: a tunneled stupid walkway. Perhaps they had some leftover walkway after chopping the other one down to 18 paces, and decided to throw in some leftover tunnel as well. There may be a reasonable explanation for this but most likely it is just politicians making sure Japanese conglomerates have use for their automation product. Using taxes to stimulate demand for manufacturing can be okay. But they don’t have to be stupid about it.

One way stupid automation happens is when people start rather than end with automation as a step in an improvement process. To avoid this we should first question the need for the process and eliminate everything from it that we can. Don’t automate waste, in other words. In this case the walking distance is the process and the waste. For buildings and airports this needs to happen at the design stage. Let’s proceed with the assumption that the process (walking) is as efficient as it can be before automation.

Second, we should aim to minimize the investment and operating cost of the automation required to simplify the process. At first glance it seems that this smaller moving walkway followed this rule. However, when we examine the walkway itself it is the identical product as the longer one, only smaller. It is possible that the design is highly modular and can be built incrementally to any size, accordion-like. But in most cases these things are designed for maximum capacity, load and duration of use and as the size is shrunk the fixed costs of the moving and static parts tends to cost more based on a “design for maximum” principle.

Third, we must avoid creating monuments. This moving walkway is a monument. The tunnel is a perfect example. Once they install one of these, they are hard to move. There is no flexibility. Without getting into a discussion on the design alternatives for moving people through an airport, let’s just recognize that anytime a piece of automation requires a pit, it is a monument.

On the bright side, if you pass through the tunnel to the other side there are some very nice design improvements that have been made to this section of Narita airport. The art on the walls, the tasteful modern furniture, the indirect lighting all make for a very pleasant airport experience. From one end of the tunnel, stupidity to elegance, it is a stunning contrast.

  1. Ron Pereira

    July 12, 2009 - 6:13 pm

    I must admit… I found the Narita airport very hard to get around in and not user friendly at all for non Japanese speaking individuals. In fact, it might be towards the top of my list of least favorite airports I’ve been too and I’ve been to a few around this fine globe of ours. Stay safe over there and say hi to Brad and Mae for me!

  2. David Moles

    July 13, 2009 - 5:59 am

    I love the idea of “throwing in some leftover tunnel.”

  3. Tim Mcmahon

    July 13, 2009 - 10:57 am

    These automated people conveyors are not eliminating the waste. The waste of people transportation is only automated. Lean is about eliminating waste not automating the waste. That will only result in a small improvement. How could the distance be reduced? That is where the large gains would come from. We often do this in the transactional world as well when we automate paper work. Instead of eliminating the transaction or document we automate with ellectronic forms and bar code scanners. Look for the waste and eliminate it. Ask what is this form used for, why do we do this transaction? Get rid of non-value added tasks.

  4. Scott

    July 13, 2009 - 1:37 pm

    I am 180 degrees from Ron on Narita as I was impressed with the flow of individuals through the airport from landing to finding where I had to go etc. If you had a question just ask at the Information counter or just read the signs as most are in English. I was alone and I made out just fine on my first trip to Japan over a year ago. I took a bus from the Airport to Yokohoma. No issue. I think the problem is that you can be over whelmed by what I call organized chaos and just get confused by the flow of people. Even on the return trip it was easy – bus to Narita and shuttle to the Hilton and back. But make sure you fly Air Nippon – Business Class and get access to their clubroom for the day. Now that is first class. I have been back 2 more times the past year and I would put it ahead of just about every US Airport except Pittsburg. Maybe I have been lucky. Just make sure you always have your claim ticket, as everywhere it is 100% verification. If the wasted automation was a downer, the direct customer service focus was a pleasant lift.

  5. Samuli

    July 13, 2009 - 3:55 pm

    you should have recorded the sound also, each walkway keeps on repeating “End of the walk ahead, please wacth your step.” While you were standing and taking pictures you must have heard that dozens of times (on each of the short walkways). I always wonder why people need to be reminded of that.
    But I never use the walkways – I always prefer to walk and strech my legs after a long flight.

  6. Wayne A. Marhelski

    July 13, 2009 - 8:22 pm

    I just passed through Narita back on the 1st of July on my way back from China, and was wondering the same thing about the tunnel at first. Although I was too tired and hungry to give it much more thought, so nice catch Jon. Actually, I was on a mission, there was a bowl of udon that had my name on it. I think the real danger is that just because the technology exists, some people feel compelled to use it without any regard for the actual need. When referring to design engineers, I typical use the phrase, “If it isn’t broke, it just doesn’t have enough features yet.” There seems to be a compelling need to constantly add more and more of something without taking the step back to determine what the true need is, or what the customer actually wants. It becomes more about doing or adding something just because it is possible to do so. Not very lean in my opinion.

  7. Sharma

    July 14, 2009 - 4:18 am

    Dear Jon,
    This reminds me of the Hindi phrase “Chirag tale andhera” which means that there is a lot of darkness below the lamp itself. People look up to Japan as a creator of lean culture, yet sadly enough, when you land there you see wastages at the airport itself!
    But it takes a person like you who has lean as a second nature, who can see wastages even where others can’t. Taking this forward I request you to start some articles on Five S of House Keeping and Lean in our personal lives and behaviors.(For example, in our homes, kitchens, bedroom cabinets, car dash-boards and also our wallets!.) Believe me if you check anybody’s wallet, you will find a lot of scope for “Red Tagging” and “Improvement” as there are a lot of wasteful/unused items they carry round the year with them.
    That reminds me that I have not checked my wallet since a long time. Haha.

  8. Jon Miller

    July 14, 2009 - 6:33 am

    Hi Wayne
    It’s funny how bowls of soba, ramen and udon have a way of manifesting our names on them…
    Buried on a hill in Seattle is a great fighter and philosopher who said, “The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.”

  9. Jon Miller

    July 14, 2009 - 6:37 am

    So true Sharma. In fact I am in stage 2 of a major red tag event of my garage. I thought about taking “before” photos to share but demurred as it could have destroyed my credibility!!

  10. azhan

    July 15, 2009 - 1:46 am

    Such a waste.
    Anyway, thanks for the content in your blog. Keep posting. ­čÖé

  11. Rossi

    July 15, 2009 - 8:06 am

    I agree that the walkways seems to be pure waste, but also believe that it is possible to exist (even than it was valid only in the past) a good reason for their implementation. It would be fair to do a 5 Why┬┤s exercise with the proper persons responsible for its implementation, but as we are not in touch with them, let keep this exercise in the suppositions: Imagine that analysing the complete flow of people, some botlenecks were identified and they occurred only in the peak time, so they implemented these walkways to relief the botlenecks (if people keep walking over the walkways they are faster and could help in this hipotetic situation). This scenario is not impossible in a high demografic density contry as Japan… Ok, I know that is a small possibility for that, but don┬┤t you think that would be possible has happened something like that?

  12. Lakhanpal

    September 25, 2010 - 2:13 am

    hie Jon, I am a student of Architecture from New Delhi, India. I came across your article while surfing about Moving Walkways or passenger conveyors. Its a very informative one though because of the fact that India soon leading to every advancement might have one too.. I don’t really have any ideas to add to, but what I really want to know is that: are there any worthy advantages in near future of the same in a country like ours ; keeping in mind the criteria & scope of the system(the balance of machinery & the aesthetics) & to what context it helps…(just in Airports or Commercial spaces).
    I am supposed to design a Hospitality District for my Thesis Project. And in that I am trying to introduce these walkways as a part of major Public core of the whole scheme that I have in mind. ( Urban Design scheme). I will be really obliged if u could spare some time to give your views & answer my questions.
    looking forward to your post or reply on my ID.
    thanks a lot!
    take care!

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