The More Sophisticated Brains – Robots or Employees?
Last week, an article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye: “The Robots Are Coming to Hospitals: A New Breed of Blue-Collar Robots is Handling the Dirty Work, Transporting Linens and Laundry.”
My immediate short response was to tweet out an illustration that I hoped would get circulated around Twitter. I also got an article published in MD+DI (Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry). I'll share both of those here.
Even if you can't read the initial WSJ piece, you should be able to watch this embedded video where reporters talk about the story, with additional commentary:
From the WSJ story:
In the next few years, thousands of “service robots” are expected to enter the health-care sectorâ€”picture R2D2 from “Star Wars” carrying a tray of medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors.
Fewer than 1,000 of these blue-collar robots currently roam about hospitals, but those numbers are expected to grow quickly.
I've seen those “tuggers” in factories and (less frequently) in hospitals.
Here is the graphic I created and shared:
People get so giddy about robots… and they forget to think about the inherent improvement capabilities that workers at all levels have. The man pictured at right works at the hospital where my Healthcare Kaizen co-author works. He works in the housekeeping department and he submitted and implemented a “kaizen” improvement in his own work. Robots can't do that. Even people doing “menial” work can generate ideas, if we respect them and engage them.
A robot that's delivering supplies can't provide any service or help to visitors. A human delivering linens can offer a friendly smile to patients who are rehabilitating in the hallway. Humans can notice a visitor who looks lost, pointing them in the right direction and then initiating improvements to hospital signage that prevents others from getting lost in the future.
Robots automate just one part of the supply chain and delivery chain for supplies like linens and meds. A robot has to be loaded by a person. The robot can then roll along to a unit. Then, a person has to unload the robot to place items onto shelves. There's just a smidge of labor taken out. Robots add the upfront cost of programming and setup, installing sensors in the floor (if necessary), and the ongoing maintenance.
If you think there's a great “ROI” on robots, you should look first at the ROI of your peoples' ideas — and people can generate ideas that improve quality, safety, and other dimensions.
So in my MD+DI piece, I wrote something targeted toward the people who design and sell these robotics:
Companies that sell robots may see healthcare as a new market opportunity, especially in the case of one manufacturer that expects its military sales to shrink dramatically, given government budget cuts. Instead of asking “where else can we sell what we make?,” the makers and buyers of technology need to first ask what problem is being solved with a given technology.
Both buyers and makers would be well served by following the 8th principle of The Toyota Way: “Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.” The automaker is not Luddite in its approachâ€”it certainly uses robots, software, and other technologies, but only when they produce better quality, protect employees, or have a clearly proven long-term return on investment. Borrowing from the “Lean Startup” methodology popularized by Eric Ries, engineers need to not only ask “can I build this?” but they should also ask “should I build it?” from a market perspective.
You can read my whole article here and please leave your comments and thoughts here on this post. I'm not opposed to robots… but I am opposed to companies just pushing their technology because they see “a new market,” and I'm opposed to hospitals buying technology just because of a gee whiz factor.