Automation: Towards an employee-less company and a player-less game?

Towards an employee-less company and a player-less game?. Will automation make employees disappear from the workplace? Hirokazu Kono, Professor at Keio Business School, Japan

Part 2 of the feature article Will Total Quality Mean the End of Imperfect People? by Hirokazu Kono, Professor at Keio Business School, Japan

Automation: Towards an employee-less company and a player-less game? by Tom Gamble from an interview with Professor Hirokazu Kono.

Automation: Towards an employee-less company and a player-less game?

While the use of automation and AI is on the increase throughout the world, there are many examples where humans, with their unique capacities, apply the finishing touches to machine-produced products (see Part 1 of this article). These examples indeed point towards a negative reply to the question. Then the issue of profit kicks in.

Part of the automation argument in the past has laid in the search for profit optimization by tackling the high labour costs in Japan. The most popular solution was outsourcing production to neighbouring China and other south-east Asia countries in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The trend, however, is now directing the other way. Rising living standards in Asian countries have pushed up the labour costs and charges. This, in addition to a favourable dollar exchange rate, means that many Japanese companies are now bringing production back to Japan, an obvious boon to employment expectations despite the surge of AI and automated production. Hirokazu Kono points out the leaning towards short-term profit in industrialised countries, questioning the justification of it and pointing out the basic need for humans to live and enjoy working. In this he sees a price to pay – even though it could mean high labour charges and taxes – and ensures that this “win-win” argument is instilled in Keio’s values and work ethics.

This being said, the temptation to employ more numbers of robots is irresistible, not least due to the dramatically decreasing cost of them. ROI is no longer a worry. Indeed, warehouse stock management is a sector that is experiencing subsequent growth in the use of automated solutions. Here, incoming parts are stocked, picked and then shipped out in massive numbers. In this case, a zero-employee warehouse would pose no problem.

However, states Hirokazu Kono, if there is a single worker in such a vast space like a warehouse then this does cause an issue. Imagine. Alone in several thousands of square feet for seven to eight hours a day with no one to talk to. Over time, there would indeed be a very negative impact on the worker’s state of health. For Kono, such issues have to be addressed by management leaders in a near future – in light of both benefits and drawbacks.

Towards an employee-less company and a player-less game?. Will automation make employees disappear from the workplace? Hirokazu Kono, Professor at Keio Business School, Japan

An analogy that comes to mind when tackling the question of Artificial Intelligence and human interaction is that of sports. Recently, new prototype software was designed for the smartphone that can trace the movements, not of the player, but of the ball itself, in a football game.

Information gathered simultaneously from eleven cameras placed inside the stadium gives the spectator a history of the ball’s trajectory – making judgement and criticism of a player’s performance reliant on the machine. The same goes for baseball, a sport that has millions of devoted fans in Japan. Prototypes are being finalized that send instantaneous game data to a spectator’s smartphone.

This provides the strange scenario of tens of thousands of people being present at the stadium but watching the game glued to the screens of their mobiles in order to decide whether to boo or applaud. Professor Kono stresses the importance of people’s direct observation in such interactive games: it is the face, the emotions that provide the passionately interesting aspects of baseball, and the raw, natural data that trigger spectators’ emotions and reactions. The same applies to the workplace.

Automation: Trust and learn

Can we trust imperfect people to be in charge of perfect machines? It might be worth looking at the example of the 2020 Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo. The Japanese government has launched a project to introduce automated driving for the event that will transport passengers arriving at the airport terminals to downtown fast and without the stress of having to take the wheel on the city’s busy highways.

This may mean a great opportunity for growth for software and automobile manufacturers, but the stress, of a different kind, may still be present for the users. This is because one of the basics of product manufacturing seems to have been overlooked: Machines aren’t perfect. Every part or product ages. It deteriorates and may go wrong, sometimes even producing disaster.

And there may also be design defects that cause teething problems, and even worse, accidents – witness the recent crashes that hit the headlines involving Google and Tesla self-driving cars in the US. While improving technology may reduce the risk of failure to a minimum, it is beyond reasonable logic to claim that zero risk will be obtained. Trust in imperfection, however, and perhaps your stress-level will naturally decrease.

Students study automation at Keio Business School

Despite the speed at which technology is changing our working lives, Prof. Kono asserts the need for a balanced approach in educating students for their future careers. Management science in general inevitably requires increased IT skills and logic to cater for the technical environments and tools used in the company.

But production and operations management, even if caught up in the drive for automation and AI, still has to tackle problems – and this is what counts: getting down to the nitty-gritty on the shopfloor. When searching for bigger production capacity and greater quality, it is often a question not of which technological solution to use, but of the strategy, methods and impact. If the sales team fails to pay attention to the increase in capacity, then the technological solution becomes meaningless.

The same goes for the procurement department when it finds itself having to purchase more parts to cater for higher production, and the finance department when it has to find and obtain the funds to bear the extra costs for parts. A small idea in production can therefore change the whole company structure.

When asked what he would expect of future generations, Dean Hirokazu Kono doesn’t hesitate to state: The human touch is indispensable, even in the era of sophisticated automation. Students need to experience the whole structure of a company – from production to sales and marketing – in order to become effective leaders. They also, while being at ease with technology, have to look outside and across borders, and not forget those in less developed areas of the world. It is empathy, understanding and awareness that make the human experience unique. Also expected is an awareness of the fact that imperfect humans create sophisticated machines which are imperfect themselves, and that things which are beyond a machine’s imperfect capacity have to be taken care of – by us, the imperfect workers.

Return to Part 1 of this article
Hirokazu Kono, Keio Business School, Japan - an interview on automation in the workplace.
Hirokazu Kono

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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- South America: FGV-EAESP, Brazil.

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