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How will AI and robotics impact on Lean jobs?

Lean jobs

May 23, 2017

Hardly a day goes by without artificial intelligence (AI) hitting the headlines, whether it’s as a potential solution to some of life’s greatest challenges, or a threat to our very existence. For good or ill, there’s no denying that robotics and intelligent computer software are already having a major impact on our working lives. This article in particular, about the increased use of robots in Japan to compensate for the labour shortage, made me wonder about the potential impact of AI on Lean jobs both now and in the future.

Whatever your view of the brave new world of robots and self-learning computer software though, the technology is here to stay and evolving all the time. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an industry that won’t be touched by the impact of AI, but this is as much an opportunity as a threat in my view.

Lean is a philosophy and business strategy which requires a great many skills, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.  Some aspects of Lean jobs – such as data analysis, system design and supply chain efficiency – lend themselves to AI and its ability to process vast amounts of information, evaluate a situation, learn from its environment and adapt behaviour accordingly. However, other aspects of Lean, including communication, coaching, creative problem solving and leadership, are way beyond the capability of any robot and require uniquely human attributes.

As Frank Zappa famously said, “The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.”  While Lean is – on the surface – about efficiency and waste reduction, at heart it’s about fundamental culture change. For Lean to be effective and sustained, it requires human intervention to drive continuous improvement.

The type of problem solving involved in an effective Lean programme calls upon left and right brain thinking in equal measure and computers have little to offer when it comes to intuition and creativity. Like many other roles, Lean jobs are only under threat from AI if they fail to evolve. Now is the time for Lean specialists to harness the potential of artificial intelligence by identifying how it can help hone Lean practices.

In my view, robot and human working in harmony could take Lean and its effectiveness to the next level, elevating its status as a vital business strategy and actually opening up more specialist Lean job opportunities in the longer term. Imagine a world where Lean is standard business practice across all organisations!

The biggest challenge for today’s Lean practitioners is the urgent need to adapt to and embrace the advent of AI.  People currently working in the field are likely to feel threatened and insecure about AI as we are still in the very early days of this powerful technology, but the next generation of Lean specialists will have grown up with it.

Now is the time to be considering all the possibilities of AI and introducing protocols and frameworks which harness its capabilities and ensure it integrates with the human aspects of Lean. At all levels of an organisation there may be an opportunity to introduce AI into the Lean programme, but equally you will almost certainly need the intervention of people at every stage to sense-check and guide its influence.

Rather than threatening Lean jobs, AI can potentially help us stretch and flex our Lean colleagues and their effectiveness. My advice is not to be fearful of AI, but to fix your gaze on the horizon and take that robot by the hand. It could be the best Lean journey you ever embark upon.

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