Automation and Productivity
This article originally appeared on this blog on July 16, 2018 under the heading How to Do 10X More (and Win at Work). It is being reproduced here because it serves as a good series finale to “4 Ways to Turbocharge Your Productivity”
The secret of being way more productive at your current level lies in automation. But, as we will discuss here, this is not as easy as it sounds, as there are several steps that need to get done correctly before we can automate our work.
For better or worse, there is a relentless drive to achieve more with less, to get more and more done in the same number of hours. In many cases, this is possible—with some effort. In this post, we are looking at how we can achieve more at work.
Cut out the unnecessary
I take pride in how minimalist my family lives. We make sure we buy only the most essential items. Yet, when I comb through our house every month to see if there are things—magazines, toys, clothes, appliances— I can trash or give to charity, almost without fail, I fill up the waste basket. This tells me that, without this regular cleaning exercise, our house would be runover with garbage.
What is true for our house is true for work: there are many things we do for our employers that are more or less garbage in that they are worthless. We rarely take the time to look for waste at work because we normally assume that everything we do has value. But this isn’t accurate. Here’s a simple trick to figure out if a task is well valued or not: stop doing it and see what happens. Weigh the reaction you get from not doing it against the stress of continuing to do it and decide which is the better option. Another way to eliminate the unneeded is to outsource the work altogether to another person or company. This is the first step in figuring out how to get more done in the same number of hours.
Categorize what is left
After cutting out the fluff, the next step is to arrange what is left into categories. Keep in mind that our end goal is to automate as many tasks as possible, and to do that effectively, we need to develop routines that can self-execute. This is why, once we have a good idea of our essential tasks, we need to classify them, as each may need a different approach.
Write protocols for each category
Imagine if someone were to volunteer to help you do some part of your job. You would want them to have a procedure of how to do it so that the quality remains consistent, regardless of who does the task. Writing protocols is basically that: develop a step-by-step instruction of how to carry out an activity.
Standardization—writing protocols for a group of similar tasks—finds its maximum advantage in automation. The end of standardization is automation, for automation is where standardization fulfills its potential; it is where standardization delivers on its promises. Automate your work whenever possible. The time and effort expended to automate pays in spades.
If a spreadsheet can do the job, stop using a calculator. If you can write a computer program for it, please do. Never do for yourself what some lines of codes can do for you. Let the 0s and 1s do the job. Invest in producing those codes. The investment is well worth it. The message here is not that computer programs can solve all your work issues, but that you should automate whenever practical.
In fact, the best example of the benefits of automation I can think of comes, not from bits and bytes, but from an illustration in Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Two men, the story goes, won a contract to supply a nearby village with potable water. One man got to work immediately by carrying buckets to the river with his sons to supply the village. The other built a pipeline. At the beginning, the first man was making deliveries and earning money, while the second man earned nothing. In fact, the second man was initially in debt because he had to finance the pipeline’s construction. As soon as the pipeline was finished, though, the first man could no longer compete. One hundred sons carrying buckets 24 hours a day cannot accomplish what a pump and a pipeline can. The second man automated the process. He got much richer in the process, and he accomplished the task of assuring that the village had a reliable water supply. Everybody won.
You want the computer or pipeline or conveyor belt to do what it can, so you can do what only you can
Build a pipeline for your repetitive tasks. Have an assembly line of standard templates for every routine work you do; put them on a conveyor belt and watch the process crank out standard quality products. There is no other way to establish a reputation of creating dependable goods and services than to have a simplified standard work process on autopilot. This is how you achieve 10X more and start winning.
Be careful before conceding that some work can never be automated. Some scientists a few years ago declared that a computer could never do certain tasks, e.g., driving a car. Today, we have driverless cars. That’s right, cars that drive themselves. There are robots now that do advanced surgery—and they do it better than surgeons! The Lexus car factory in Japan is automated: machines build machines. Each day, we find new examples of how technology is breaking new grounds.
Not every human activity can be automated, and we will expand on this point next week. Nevertheless, I advise that you challenge yourself to look critically at your work and automate as much as possible. You want the computer or pipeline or conveyor belt to do what it can do, so you can do what only you can do. That’s how to win at work.