Robots Revisited

Engineer with SCARA robots
Engineer using monitoring system software to check and control SCARA welding robots in a digital manufacturing operation. PopTika/Shutterstock

12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”

I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.

On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.

The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.Figure 1

The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.

Figure 2The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:

The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.

This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.

The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.

That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.

Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.

If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!

I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.

Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.

My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.

An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.

Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.

Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.

So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.

How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?

Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.

Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.

We need to look for a different explanation.

It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.

I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.

Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.

The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.

It’s a weak argument, but it exists.

The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.

For developing economies, not so much.

Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).

What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?

Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!

Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.

Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.

Who’s NOT a Creative?

 

Compensting sales
Close-up Of A Business Woman Giving Cheque To Her Colleague At Workplace In Office. Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

25 July 2018 – Last week I made a big deal about the things that motivate creative people, such as magazine editors, and how the most effective rewards were non-monetary. I also said that monetary rewards, such as commissions based on sales results, were exactly the right rewards to use for salespeople. That would imply that salespeople were somehow different from others, and maybe even not creative.

That is not the impression I want to leave you with. I’m devoting this blog posting to setting that record straight.

My remarks last week were based on Maslow‘s and Herzberg‘s work on motivation of employees. I suggested that these theories were valid in other spheres of human endeavor. Let’s be clear about this: yes, Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theories are valid and useful in general, whenever you want to think about motivating normal, healthy human beings. It’s incidental that those researchers were focused on employer/employee relations as an impetus to their work. If they’d been focused on anything else, their conclusions would probably have been pretty much the same.

That said, there are a whole class of people for whom monetary compensation is the holy grail of motivators. They are generally very high functioning individuals who are in no way pathological. On the surface, however, their preferred rewards appear to be monetary.

Traditionally, observers who don’t share this reward system have indicted these individuals as “greedy.”

I, however, dispute that conclusion. Let me explain why.

When pointing out the rewards that can be called “motivators for editors,” I wrote:

“We did that by pointing out that they belonged to the staff of a highly esteemed publication. We talked about how their writings helped their readers excel at their jobs. We entered their articles in professional competitions with awards for things like ‘Best Technical Article.’ Above all, we talked up the fact that ours was ‘the premier publication in the market.'”

Notice that these rewards, though non-monetary. were more or less measurable. They could be (and indeed for the individuals they motivated) seen as scorecards. The individuals involved had a very clear idea of value attached to such rewards. A Nobel Prize in Physics is of greater value than, say, a similar award given by, say, Harvard University.

For example, in 1987 I was awarded the “Cahners Editorial Medal of Excellence, Best How-To Article.” That wasn’t half bad. The competition was articles written for a few dozen magazines that were part of the Cahners Publishing Company, which at the time was a big deal in the business-to-business magazine field.

What I considered to be of higher value, however, was the “First Place Award For Editorial Excellence for a Technical Article in a Magazine with Over 80,000 Circulation” I got in 1997 from the American Society of Business Press Editors, where I was competing with a much wider pool of journalists.

Economists have a way of attempting to quantify such non-monetary awards called utility. They arrive at values by presenting various options and asking the question: “Which would you rather have?”

Of course, measures of utility generally vary widely depending on who’s doing the choosing.

For example, an article in the 19 July The Wall Street Journal described a phenomenon the author seemed to think was surprising: Saudi-Arabian women drivers (new drivers all) showed a preference for muscle cars over more pedestrian models. The author, Margherita Stancati, related an incident where a Porche salesperson in Riyadh offered a recently minted woman driver an “easy to drive crossover designed to primarily attract women.” The customer demurred. She wanted something “with an engine that roars.”

So, the utility of anything is not an absolute in any sense. It all depends on answering the question: “Utility to whom?”

Everyone is motivated by rewards in the upper half of the Needs Pyramid. If you’re a salesperson, growth in your annual (or other period) sales revenue is in the green Self Esteem block. It’s well and truly in the “motivator” category, and has nothing to do with the Safety and Security “hygiene factor” where others might put it. Successful salespeople have those hygiene factors well-and-truly covered. They’re looking for a reward that tells them they’ve hit a home run. That is likely having a bigger annual bonus than the next guy.

The most obvious money-driven motivators accrue to the folks in the CEO ranks. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett would have a hard time measuring their success (i.e., hitting the Pavlovian lever to get Self Actualization rewards) without looking at their monetary compensation!

The Pyramid of Needs

Needs Pyramid
The Pyramid of Needs combines Maslow’s and Herzberg’s motivational theories.

18 July 2018 – Long, long ago, in a [place] far, far away. …

When I was Chief Editor at business-to-business magazine Test & Measurement World, I had a long, friendly though heated, discussion with one of our advertising-sales managers. He suggested making the compensation we paid our editorial staff contingent on total advertising sales. He pointed out that what everyone came to work for was to get paid, and that tying their pay to how well the magazine was doing financially would give them an incentive to make decisions that would help advertising sales, and advance the magazine’s financial success.

He thought it was a great idea, but I disagreed completely. I pointed out that, though revenue sharing was exactly the right way to compensate the salespeople he worked with, it was exactly the wrong way to compensate creative people, like writers and journalists.

Why it was a good idea for his salespeople I’ll leave for another column. Today, I’m interested in why it was not a good idea for my editors.

In the heat of the discussion I didn’t do a deep dive into the reasons for taking my position. Decades later, from the standpoint of a semi-retired whatever-you-call-my-patchwork-career, I can now sit back and analyze in some detail the considerations that led me to my conclusion, which I still think was correct.

We’ll start out with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy. At the top is “self actualization,” which boils down to a need for creativity. It’s the need to do something that’s never been done before in one’s own individual way. At the bottom is the simple need for physical survival. In between are three more identified needs people also seek to satisfy.

Maslow pointed out that people seek to satisfy these needs from the bottom to the top. For example, nobody worries about security arrangements at their gated community (second level) while having a heart attack that threatens their survival (bottom level).

Overlaid on Maslow’s hierarchy is Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which he published in his 1959 book The Motivation to Work. Herzberg’s theory divides Maslow’s hierarchy into two sections. The lower section is best described as “hygiene factors.” They are also known as “dissatisfiers” or “demotivators” because if they’re not met folks get cranky.

Basically, a person needs to have their hygiene factors covered in order have a level of basic satisfaction in life. Not having any of these needs satisfied makes them miserable. Having them satisfied doesn’t motivate them at all. It makes ’em fat, dumb and happy.

The upper-level needs are called “motivators.” Not having motivators met drives an individual to work harder, smarter, etc. It energizes them.

My position in the argument with my ad-sales friend was that providing revenue sharing worked at the “Safety and Security” level. Editors were (at least in my organization) paid enough that they didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids and covering their bills. They were talented people with a choice of whom they worked for. If they weren’t already being paid enough, they’d have been forced to go work for somebody else.

Creative people, my argument went, are motivated by non-monetary rewards. They work at the upper “motivator” levels. They’ve already got their physical needs covered, so to motivate them we have to offer rewards in the “motivator” realm.

We did that by pointing out that they belonged to the staff of a highly esteemed publication. We talked about how their writings helped their readers excel at their jobs. We entered their articles in professional competitions with awards for things like “Best Technical Article.” Above all, we talked up the fact that ours was “the premier publication in the market.”

These were all non-monetary rewards to motivate people who already had their basic needs (the hygiene factors) covered.

I summarized my compensation theory thusly: “We pay creative people enough so that they don’t have to go do something else.”

That gives them the freedom to do what they would want to do, anyway. The implication is that creative people want to do stuff because it’s something they can do that’s worth doing.

In other words, we don’t pay creative people to work. We pay them to free them up so they can work. Then, we suggest really fun stuff for them to work at.

What does this all mean for society in general?

First of all, if you want there to be a general level of satisfaction within your society, you’d better take care of those hygiene factors for everybody!

That doesn’t mean the top 1%. It doesn’t mean the top 80%, either. Or, the top 90%. It means everybody!

If you’ve got 99% of everybody covered, that still leaves a whole lot of people who think they’re getting a raw deal. Remember that in the U.S.A. there are roughly 300 million people. If you’ve left 1% feeling ripped off, that’s 3 million potential revolutionaries. Three million people can cause a lot of havoc if motivated.

Remember, at the height of the 1960s Hippy movement, there were, according to the most generous estimates, only about 100,000 hipsters wandering around. Those hundred-thousand activists made a huge change in society in a very short period of time.

Okay. If you want people invested in the status quo of society, make sure everyone has all their hygiene factors covered. If you want to know how to do that, ask Bernie Sanders.

Assuming you’ve got everybody’s hygiene factors covered, does that mean they’re all fat, dumb, and happy? Do you end up with a nation of goofballs with no motivation to do anything?

Nope!

Remember those needs Herzberg identified as “motivators” in the upper part of Maslow’s pyramid?

The hygiene factors come into play only when they’re not met. The day they’re met, people stop thinking about who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Folks become fat, dumb and happy, and stay that way for about an afternoon. Maybe an afternoon and an evening if there’s a good ballgame on.

The next morning they start thinking: “So, what can we screw with next?”

What they’re going to screw with next is anything and everything they damn well please. Some will want to fly to the Moon. Some will want to outdo Michaelangelo‘s frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They’re all going to look at what they think was the greatest stuff from the past, and try to think of ways to do better, and to do it in their own way.

That’s the whole point of “self actualization.”

The Renaissance didn’t happen because everybody was broke. It happened because they were already fat, dumb and happy, and looking for something to screw with next.