At a recent meeting of executives in the logistics industry, the discussion wandered to the subject of reducing labor costs through automation. In a passing comment, one attendee referred to workers as “cost on two legs.” Has it really come to that?
As an industrial engineer and a believer in free market capitalism, I have no problem with using automation to replace workers. Almost always, automation performs work that otherwise would be burdensome, monotonous, or dangerous for humans. Automation is an excellent means of redeeming work from the curse, and yes, sometimes that means forcing workers to find other, less burdensome, less monotonous, and less dangerous means of employment (or finding it for them). Let us give thanks for the wonder that is our modern economy.
The executive in question did not intend the phrase “cost on two legs” to be mean-spirited, but it does betray, I fear, an attitude among some industrial engineers, OR types, and operations managers that workers are something less than human—”things to be minimized.” We never say it that way, of course, but in the relentless pursuit of lower costs and higher productivity, how often do we stop to ask about the well-being of the human beings involved?
The research community needs more emphasis on the human element of systems we design. Yes, I know there is an entire sub-discipline of IE devoted to human factors in industrial systems, but the well-being of industrial humanity must rise above the level of sub-discipline! For a great read on this subject, I highly recommend Diane Bailey and Stephen Barley’s excellent article, “Return to work: Toward post-industrial engineering,” IIE Transactions 37, 2005. (Download available only if you are in the academic “club.” Otherwise, email the authors directly, or use the contact form below to email me for a copy.)