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Knowing your purpose in business used to be easy. Maximize shareholder value. For a professional among the ranks of a manufacturing company this made the appeal of robotics clear. Get some robots. Save labor. Increase earnings per share. Done.
So we started automating. Dirty, difficult, and dangerous tasks went to the robots first. These were jobs not well-suited for humans anyway. Or maybe your company had a contentious relationship with organized labor. Robots never go on strike and before ‘The Terminator’ hit theaters, the rise of the machine wasn’t on the radar yet. The plan holds. Get robot. Save money. Shareholder wins. Done.
Has anything changed? Shareholder value made a lot of careers and made a lot of investors money. But it wasn’t without side effects. Enron, The Great Recession, and Deepwater Horizon come to mind when shareholder value gets put before customers, employees, communities, or the environment. And there were many less famous cases of downsizing, right sizing, reengineering, and cost reduction aimed at the bottom line without considering the collateral damage to products and people. Maybe we can do better?
When any company decides to automate, the result is additional resources from improved margins. Every organization will have to decide how to apply this resource. Some will decide to pocket it or return it to the shareholders and it is certainly their right to do so. They spent the money, did the work, and took the risk. However others will reinvest in their product, their people, or their community. As employees become more selective of where they apply their skills and consumers more aware of the impact of their buying decisions, companies will have to do more to attract the talent they need to compete and the customers they need to succeed. The brands that figure this out will dominate the 21st century.
If this sounds hard it doesn’t have to be. To begin you should first be honest with yourself and your team about why automation and robotics are right for your business. We are automating this because...insert the real reason whatever it is... and we all win because... Next, consider how you will spend the savings and reallocate the people. You should talk to your team and your customers about this too. Is there an opportunity to make your product better? Could you invest in R&D to build the next great feature that will delight your customers? Can you now afford employee benefits or rewards you couldn’t before? Can you fix that process where employees keep getting hurt or that waste issue you wish you could solve? Can your people focus on your customers more?
Robots are everywhere now and they can do more than ever. They can build things and solve all sorts of problems. They can even learn new tasks by themselves and get smarter over time. But they are still machines and while this means they are great at many things they still can’t do what people can when it comes to connecting with other people. Robots don’t have empathy, intuition, inspiration, or creativity, and so they can’t resolve tough customer service problems, build the next great product, or create a great customer experience (add the “sweet touch” as we say around the sweetgreen HQ aka The Treehouse). Any maybe they shouldn’t. Let robots be robots and let people be people.
But what about your shareholders? If your employees trust you and your customers love you, your shareholders will be just fine. Even if they are robots.