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Automate or Die!

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I have a brother-in-law who has been a machinist for his entire career. In other words, he makes parts, mostly for large airplanes. When I’ve asked him about his job, his biggest complaint was that union rules prevent him from being productive. In order to protect jobs, the rules restrict him from operating multiple CNC machines at a time, whereas he has the time and skills to do so. He’s literally bored on the job.

The reason he can operate multiple machines at once is automation. CNC machines are, by their very design, highly automated.  They take instructions from CAD/CAM programs and automatically machine aircraft parts (or whatever). But shops have taken automation to a whole new level by automating the changing of tools, delivery of materials pallets, and more. In other words, they’ve automated the inputs and outputs.

This has had a dramatic impact on productivity, as measured by the utilization of machines. In an article entitled, “Automate or Die,” American Machinist magazine describes the benefits of automation beyond CNC:

"The simplest forms of automation are automatic tool changing and automatic pallet changing. Combined, these two functions can increase a horizontal machining center's utilization 50 percent to 80 percent, given the right application."

Unfortunately, the complaint I hear from IT managers is just the opposite of my machinist brother-in-law. In our conversations, we still hear about skilled administrators performing very mundane tasks. There are examples we hear so often:

  • “We have a full-time employee dedicated to handling disk space-related events.”

  • “Maintaining monitoring thresholds is a constant challenge for us.”

  • “How can we automatically set maintenance mode in our monitoring tools?”

  • “We routinely reboot those servers to resolve a known issue. But it takes Joe four hours every time to do the reboot and make sure it was successful.”

  • “And then the analyst updates the trouble ticket with information from the monitoring tool.”

The list goes on. But this is much more important than a simple complaint. It’s a real business issue for IT. If skilled people are consumed by mundane tasks, they’re frustrated (if not bored). They’ll move on, and take what they know with them. More importantly, IT may fail to deliver on important commitments because they’re distracted by day-to-day issues.

If you must automate (or else), what do you automate? What are those “simplest forms of automation” that can provide a high return for the effort?  Travis Greene recommends several questions to ask when identifying automation candidates:

  • What processes do users or customers complain about?

  • What activities occupy too much staff time?

  • What activities cause the biggest budget surprises?

  • What activities cause the most re-work?

  • What processes are competitors automating?

These questions should provide a good start. But the point is there are simple things that can be automated that can provide excellent benefits. Automation doesn’t have to be daunting; you can start simple. In fact, the more mundane something is, the more likely it can be automated.

Better to automate, than have your skilled people complain about their jobs. Give them something more challenging to do.
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