Followers of this blog will probably recall how big a fan I am of automating work. VBA is most often my tool of choice, and I would use it to fetch various files, dump them into templates, copy the converted outputs and post them into a central file to then automatically output reports from that can be easily shared.
These days my use of automation is more abstract, where Power Query does most of the heavy lifting for me. I’m doing many of the same tasks through a GUI that records each step and displays it, allowing me to instantly undo or move around steps as I see fit.
Then the other day while reading The Personal MBA, I come across the Paradox of Automation.
There are three main points made by the paradox of automation:
- Automated systems are usually faster and can therefore replicate mistakes at a much greater pace than before.
- The system that automates the tasks must be overseen by humans, who should be able to spot anomalies and make repairs or maintain increasingly complex systems.
- People don’t get practice with the manual ways of completing the process and potentially lose those skills entirely.
As someone who always tries to find a more automated or simplified way of completing work, it would be foolish for me to ignore these points, however it should be noted that these same points can be made against pretty much any modern technology, from computers to washing machines. Yes they replace things that humans did manually and yes they take more skill to understand and maintain than before and yes they can produce more issues in a matter of seconds than a human could in an hour, but overall they tend not to do that.
So how does that help us with the paradox of automation?
Lets use the washing machine as an example.
Most people who own a washing machine don’t know how to build or maintain one, but they do know how to get in touch with someone who does; the internet, business directories, referrals from friends or family, helplines.
They do breakdown and cause more problems than handwashing ever would, but the chances of a breakdown are incredibly low. This is because all of the components have been stress-tested for tolerances before and after going into the final product. Most of the time when they go wrong, it’s because they haven’t been properly maintained or serviced.
Many washing machine parts are standardised, and for those that aren’t, the manufacturer will usually have spare parts. In the cases that it can’t be repaired as it is, you can swap out the washing machine for another and it will still do the same job as the old one.
What can we take from that and apply to our automation efforts?
Find your experts
Who else could understand and repair your automated processes besides you? What skills do they need and at what level? If you have created something that only you can maintain, as soon as you aren’t around it goes from an asset to a liability. Don’t let that happen, keep a record of what someone needs to know to maintain or change the process you created and make sure the right people know about and have access to this record.
Don’t assume everything will always work perfectly, find out what will happen when your process doesn’t find something it’s looking for, or the format of inputs changes, or the system crashes in the middle of the process!
Wherever you can, use standard systems and processes that are well known or have an active community that you can go to for help. Building custom processes can be fun, but if nobody else can understand how they work, you are creating problems for the future while trying to solve the problems of the present.
And if you are using components created by someone else, even customised or edited, link to the source and credit the author where you can so that if you aren’t around and something goes wrong, there’s someone else to ask.
So that others may learn how not to go bananas at work and in life by learning from my mistakes, I think it’s important to point out that I haven’t followed all of these rules in the past. In fact, in the majority of cases I haven’t followed any of them, mostly just a little bit in the last couple of years.
I was awed and excited by the possibilities that automation opened up, and they have indeed given me many more opportunities than I had before.
So maybe I was silly and selfish, some might even call it unprofessional? But I’m sure that better people will come along and replace what I did entirely with even better systems, it’s likely they have already, so rather than dwell on what I haven’t done in the past, I am going to focus on doing better in the future!
Books mentioned in this post:
The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman