Caught in what Elon Musk called “manufacturing hell”, Tesla failed to hit its weekly production target of 2,500 Model 3 vehicles in the first quarter of 2018 — a setback that calls into question the company’s ability to hit its 5,000-a-week target in three months. During a tour around the factory, Musk admitted to the CBS TV network that robots had slowed down production rather than speed it up.
Can it be that over-automation is to blame for problems at the billionaire’s electric car company? If so, that’s a rare win for humans over robots when the hype says technology will replace the human workforce with machines.
Questioned further on the topic, the chief executive affirmed that one of the reasons the carmaker struggled to reach promised production volumes is because of the company’s “excessive automation”. Musk elaborated: “We had this crazy, complex network of conveyor belts … And it was not working, so we got rid of that whole thing.”
At Tesla, excessive automation is being called a mistake.
“To be precise, my mistake,” clarified Musk, adding that “humans are underrated.”
This isn’t the first time Musk has used the “too much technology” excuse.
In 2016, he owned up to the problems with production of the Model X. In front of an audience of shareholders, he admitted, “This [Model X] programme has been challenging. I particularly need to fault myself for a fair bit of hubris for putting too much technology all at once into a product.”
The Model 3, he said, would not have as much technology.
This leaves me with a question: is Musk’s fascination with technology greater than its application? I should probably ask you the same thing. I wonder because the hyper-usage of concepts such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, automation and robotics makes it clear that the appeal is in the term.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a technology proponent, an AI advocate and adopter of blockchain thinking. But technology isn’t the goal, it’s the means to reaching it. The real goal should be productivity, specifically labour productivity. Technology should enable you to produce more per hour worked — that is, if it’s used properly.
Instead of 2,000 cars per week, Tesla should’ve been able to hits its 2,500 and even 5,000-a week production targets. Similarly, technology should help you achieve more per hour worked.
Misplaced technology is problematic and can stand in the way of productivity as evidenced at Tesla. For decades, technological advances have been visible everywhere, except in the productivity statistics. A proposed reason is that technology in and of itself has become the focus.
So, instead of asking how you can use AI or blockchain, ask how they can help you. The difference is subtle, but vital.
According to Musk, the Model 3’s technical complexities were additionally to blame for the company’s ongoing “production hell”. “We got complacent about some of the things we felt were our core technology, we put too much new technology into the Model 3 all at once,” he said.
Tesla tried to hyper-automate the final assembly while the Japanese limit automation because, as Bernstein Research puts it, it’s “expensive and is statistically inversely correlated to quality.”
Unlike Musk’s, their approach is to get the process right first, then bring in the robots.
We can all learn from the Japanese: find the best way first, then turn to technology to see how it can help. Always keep in your mind that AI can perfect whatever you’re doing. Even if you’re doing the wrong thing, it will help you do it wrong perfectly!
You may be tempted by technological advancements, after all their attention-grabbing headlines make non-adopters feel left out. But, don’t let that distract you from productivity growth. As exciting as AI and automation might sound, make sure the technology you choose helps you reach your goals.
I’m a fan of technology, but also of perspective. Maintain yours by remembering that technology should be nothing more than a facilitator of success.
Tommy Weir is a CEO coach and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.