The man-machine system performance

When looking for performance improvement of a man-machine system, too often management puts emphasis onto machine or technology at large, ignoring the fact that humans associated with equipment, machines or technology form an interrelated system and consequently humans are the discriminating factor.

The fallacy of trusting the latest technology

There is a strong belief, backed up by vendor’s marketing, that the latest state-of-the-art high-tech equipment will bring a breakthrough in performance. This is welcome news for executives struggling to keep their organization up with competition and seeking a significant performance uplift.

Production managers, industrial engineers or system designers are big kids loving high-tech expensive toys, geeks of their own kind and dreaming to get the latest, biggest, fastest piece of equipment.

Once investment made, performance does not skyrocket though.

What happened?

Management blindness

Management ignored the human factor, i.e. people put in front or in charge of the new machine, the latest technology. An operator and his machine for instance are a system.

The overall performance of this system is determined by the human-machine pair, and guess what, the most variable and hardest to control is the human factor.

Unlike machines, humans have their moods, their worries, variable health and morale, private concerns and motivation issues. One day fine, the other day down.

Humans are not equal in competencies and skills. Some learn fast, some learn slow and some never really get it.

So what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Yet this is most often what happens. Management assumes that the best of machines will make the difference, totally ignoring the influence of the people in charge.

The irresistible appeal of technology

Most decision makers and managers have some kind of hard-science background, got their degrees in engineering or business management. They were taught the robustness of math, the beauty of straightforward logic and to trust only facts and data.

When puzzled facing in real-life the highly variable and elusive nature of humans, they have a natural tendency to prefer hardware. This is something that can be put into equations and eventually controlled. This is what they are most familiar with or at least the most at ease with.

Humans are only trouble. No equation helps to understand their intrinsic drivers nor to reduce their variabilities. This is all about soft skills and psychological factors. Nothing for engineers and hard science-minded people.

Instead, they put a strong hope that the best and latest technology will trump the human factor, reduce it to a neglectable pain. But this never happens.

So again: what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Leveraging performance

In order to improve a man-machine system, it is key to first have a look on the human factor, the most important one. Make sure competency is granted. If someone lacks the necessary competencies, performance is nothing than a matter of luck.

Beware of incompetent but highly motivated people though. In their desire to do well, they may have unknowingly potentially dangerous behaviours and/or take bad decisions. These motivated ones are likely to learn, do thing right but need training and guidance.

Not motivated incompetents are not likely to take any initiatives. They are the manager’s pain and burden and giving them better, faster machines won’t help. What’s worse with not motivated incompetents is passive aggressive behaviors that can lead to potentially dangerous situations as well.

Competent but not motivated people need and probably deserve management’s attention in order to get them into the winning quadrant of the competency-motivation matrix, aka skill-will matrix (top right).

There are the competent and motivated people who do their job effectively, often efficiently and without bothering anybody.

Competent Find a driver or a whip No worries
Incompetent Long way to go… Potentially dangerous good will
Not motivated Motivated

Competency-motivation matrix from a supervisor perspective

It is with these competent and motivated people that the limits of machines or technology can be found, as they will use them properly and purposely. Even when these performance limits are reached, it’s not certain that better planning and/or better organization cannot get more performance out of the system.

Think about quick changeovers and all capacity that can be regained applying SMED methodology, or rethinking maintenance in Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) style.

Wrapping up

When facing the challenge for improving performance, considering the way operations are done should be the first step. The second is to remember than investing in people is usually cheaper and more effective than investing in technology in first place, because a well utilized outdated machine will have better yield and be way cheaper than a poorly utilized state-of-the-art new one.

“Unfortunately” for tech-lovers who would prefer new “toys”, this investment in humans has to be a substantial part of their manager’s daily routine.


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View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

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