Beware the Lure of Process Automation

When I see folks working hard at a repetitive task, using technology tools like spreadsheets, databases, and other “productivity” tools in a less-than-optimal way, I like to call them out as not being lazy enough. That always gets their attention – it’s a bit counter-intuitive, as they masterfully fly over the keyboard to tweak the data, move the files, look up the information, or clear the inbox in the shortest time possible.

I think that we should be “lazier” by getting the machines to do the work – via scripts, macros, and other automation. We live in a programmable world, after all, and a well-structured script, with descriptive comments, flexible parameters, running in a job scheduler and faithfully reproducing every step … a joy for my programmer’s heart to behold.

Rube Goldberg%27s %22Self Operating Napkin%22 %28cropped%29
Click for the original …

But you can take a good thing too far; a clever bit of automation can paper over the root problem – waste and inefficiency that we shouldn’t be burning time on in the first place.

One example – in my drive for Inbox Zero and more efficient use of eMail, I will write a rule that auto-files messages that I am cc’d on. Ok, near-term problem solved – I am not distracted by reading non-value-adding stuff. But if this email is unnecessary, why are people sending it to me in the first place? Some may feel the need to cover their butts and cc: the world on every decision; maybe I should connect with the aggressive sharer and develop our common understanding of stuff that I need to see. Automation, after all, is robotic and dispassionate in its consistency; if I autofile everything, I will surely miss something important (and filtering for “hey, this looks like something good” is not as easy as it sounds).

A better approach is to think “automation” – but take the time to drill into the root cause and tackle the tougher problem. I used to audibly groan when I was brought a large stack of invoices to sign, so my assistant suggested a rubber signature stamp. Nope, that’s not the point – why am I manually signing things in the 21st century? Can we leverage the systems around us and move to electronic signatures and minimum-spend automatic approvals?

Automation and efficiency are great – but if you automate a mess, you will get an automated mess. Elevate your level of laziness – don’t just automate, eliminate the work!

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.