Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Dehumanization of Humans

One of the things I study at SFU is Management Science. It's a subject that focuses primarily on risk management, decision analysis, forecasting and predictions, and process optimization (in both manufacturing and service operations). Management Science had its real boost from Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Have you ever heard of the term "Total Quality Management" or "TQM"? He INVENTED Total Quality Management.

The Americans rejected his ideas of statistical quality control, and so he shook the dust off of his feet and brought his message to people who desired to listen: the Japanese. He is lauded as the catalyst that revolutionized Japanese quality control, such that Japanese cars were able to be produced efficiently, cost-effectively, and with a much higher quality than American cars; this philosophy of quality control extended to all areas of Japanese industry. The Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) eventually set up an award in his honour, annually given to companies that demonstrate a fantastic achievement in quality control; it's now an internationally recognized award.

When his statistical quality control techniques received their due recognition, hordes of Americans strove to learn his ways and became known as "Deming disciples." However, while Deming really pushed statistical quality control into the modern world, he didn't create the concept of using advanced statistics and measurement. In fact, he was an opponent of measurement, from a certain perspective. Deming argued that we shouldn't simply produce units and then have inspectors to ensure that a certain percentage were good enough to be sold. Rather, he argued that we should build quality into the production process itself, so that the outputted or produced units don't need to be inspected. For example, this is why companies can produce a thousand nails and not have to inspect every single one to take out all the bad ones (not straight, no point, no head, etc.). The production process is so good that the percentage of bad nails is likely less than a single percent.

However, measurement has its place in this world; otherwise, how do your monitor your progress? Here's the question though. When is your statistical analysis so detailed that it actually creates more detriment than it does benefit? Must I measure how many blog entries I create per week in order to be satisfied that I am sufficiently keeping this blog up to date? What about the individual entries? Must I measure how many words they each have? Or paragraphs? What about my typing speed? And what of the time? Must I measure how long it takes to write a single entry, in order to ensure that I am making the best use of my limited amount of time during the day? Through Management Science, the goal is to optimize resource utilization and minimize waste (but only because elimination of waste is impossible).

It would appear to me that micro-managing ourselves to the point of measuring everything and ensuring that we are able to maintain acceptable measures of "production" actually dehumanizes us. We become robots acting according to programmed algorithms, rather than humans who have the right of creative freedom and arbitrary action. There would seem to be several reasons for this. Perhaps most importantly, you can't measure some things. How can you measure the artistry of a painting? Correspondingly, how can you then determine what would be the best production process for paintings? Let's face it: the quality of art is made from creativity, not efficiency. If you apply a statistical analysis for quality control to the creation of paintings, you eliminate the very thing that makes us human (though you may get more paintings per week).

Humans have free will and emotions. In order to act in the most efficient manner during a production process, job satisfaction and happiness can be sacrificed in order to operate at peak capacity and efficiency; in this scenario, there is no time for rest while the operation is in process. Nor is there room for creative freedom. Our very sense of self-will is destroyed and the feeling is that we are instead slaves. Slaves with no free will. We might as well be robots.

Have I started down this path with the advent of a PDA? Ensuring that everything on my schedule is on my PDA and will only take up a certain number of hours per day is interesting. If I am unable to meet a self-imposed deadline, the entire schedule goes out of wack and needs to be rescheduled. Of course, flexibility is one of the things that makes us human. But this nullifies the point of scheduling in the first place, to a certain degree.

Micro-managing resources such as time, money, and so forth can benefit from management science. But as Deming explained, humans should be respected as humans. Because they are humans, dehumanization (as described above) can actually decrease efficiency. As humans feel more and more mechanical, they lose motivation and the will to work. Taylor, a predecessor of Deming, took this path in Management Science. He emphasized experiments and measuring everything. An example that sticks out in my mind is observing the paths that workers took while unloading big boxes from a delivery vehicle. Obviously, there are benefits in finding optimal paths. There comes a point though, when that measurement results in creating robots who don't think for themselves. When that happens, we are no longer human.

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