The four stages of automation – Part II

One of the core concepts of software development and IT in general is “automation”. By delegating work to machines, we hope to reduce costs and save time while maintaining the quality of results. But automation is not an all-or-nothing endeavor, there are at least four different stages of automation that can be distinguished.

In the first part of this blog series, we looked at the first two stages, namely “documentation” and “recurring reminders”. Both approaches are low tech, but high effect. Machines only played a minor role – this will change with this blog series part. Let’s look at the remaining two stages of automation:

Stage 3: Semi-automatic

If you have a process that is properly documented and you are reminded in a regular fashion, like once a month, you’ll soon find that some steps of the process could be done by a machine, while you as the “human in duty” still pull all the strings that orchestrate the whole thing.

If you know the term “semi-automatic” from firearms, a semi-automatic firearm doesn’t aim or shoot itself, it just reloads automatically after each shot. The shooter still has to pull (and release) the trigger for each single shot. The shooter is in full control of the weapon, it just automates the mundane and repetitive task of chambering the next round.

This is the kind of automation we are taking about for stage 3. It is the most common type of automation. We know it from our cars, our coffee machines and other consumer electronics. The car manages a lot of different tasks under the hood while we are still in control of the overall task of driving from A to B.

How does it look like for business processes? One class of stage 3 utilities are reporting tools that gather and aggregate data from different sources and present the result in a suitable manner. In our company, these tools make up the majority of stage 3 services. There are reporting tools for the most important numbers (the key performance indices – KPI) and even some for less important, but cumbersome to acquire data. Most tools just present a nice website with the latest results while others send e-mails or create pages in our wiki. If you need a report, just press a button or visit an URL and the machine comes up with the answer. I tend to call this class of tools “sensors”, because they acquire data and process it, but don’t decide on the results.

The other class of stage 3 utilities that are common are “actuators” in the sense that they perform tasks on command. We have scripts in place to shut down whole clusters of computers, clear wiki spaces or reset custom fields on important data objects, but those scripts are only triggered by humans.

A stage 3 actuator could even be something small as a mailto link. Let’s say you have to send a standardized e-mail to a known recipient as part of a monthly process. Sure, you can save a draft in your e-mail application, but you can also prepare the whole mail in an URL directly in the documentation of the process:

mailto:nobody@softwareschneiderei.de?subject=The%20schneide%20blog%20rocks!&body=I%20read%20your%20blog%20post%20about%20automation%20and%20tried%20the%20mailto%20link.%20This%20thing%20is%20awesome%2C%20thank%20you!

If you click the link above, your e-mail application will prompt you to send an e-mail to us. You don’t need to follow through – we won’t read it on that address.

You can read about the format of mailto links here, but you probably want to create working mailto links right away, which is possible with this nifty stage 3 service utility written by Michael McKeever (buy him a beer!).

Be aware that this is a classic example of chaining stage 3 tools together: You use a tool to create the mailto link that you use subsequently to write, but not send, e-mails. You, as the human coordinator, decide when to write the e-mail, if you want to adapt it to current circumstances and when to send it. The tools only speed you up, but don’t act or decide on their own.

An important aspect of this type of automation is the human duty of orchestration (which service does its thing when) and the possibility of inspection and adaption. The mailto link doesn’t send an e-mail, it just prepares it for you to send. You have the final word on the things that happen.

If you require this level of control, stage 3 automation is where your automation journey ends. It still needs the competent human operator (what, when, why) – but given a decent documentation (as outlined in stage 1), this competence can be delegated quickly. It is also the first automation stage that enables higher effectiveness through speedup and error reduction. The speedup is capped by the maximum speed of the human operator, though.

Stage 4: Full automation

The last stage of automation is “full automation”, which means that a machine gathers the data on its own, comes up with a decision based on the data and acts on its own. This is a powerful tool, but a dangerous one, too.

It is powerful because you just employed an additional worker. Not a human worker, but a machine. It doesn’t go on holiday, it doesn’t lose interest and won’t ask for a bonus.

It is dangerous, because your additional worker does exactly what it is told (programmed) to do, even if it doesn’t make sense or needs just the slightest adaption to circumstances.

Another peril lies in the fact that the investment to reach the fully automated stage is maximized. As with nearly everything related to IT, there is a relevant xkcd comic for this:

https://xkcd.com/1319/

The problem is that machines are not aware of their context. They don’t deal well with slight deviations (like “1,02” instead of “1.02”) and cannot weigh the consequences of task failure. All these things are done by a competent human operator, even without specific training. You need to train a machine for every eventuality, down to the dots.

This means that you can’t just program the happy path, as you do in stage 3, when a human operator will notice the error and act accordingly. You have to implement special case behaviour, failure detection, failure handling and problem reporting. You have to adapt the program to changes in the environment in a timely manner (this work is also present in stage 3, but can be delayed more often).

If the process contains mostly routine and is recurring often enough to warrant full automation, it is a rewarding investment that pays off quickly. It will take your human-based work on a new level: designing and maintaining an automation platform that is cost-efficient, scalable and adjustable. The main problem will be time-critical adjustments and their overall effects on the whole system. You don’t need routine workers anymore, but you’ll need competent technicians on stand-by.

Examples of fully automated processes in our company are data backups, operating system upgrades, server monitoring and the recurring reminder system that creates the issues for our stage 2 automation. All of these processes have increased reporting capabilities that highlight problems or just anomalies in a direct manner. They all have one thing in common: They are small, work on only one thing and try to do so with minimal dependencies and interaction.

Conclusion

There are four distinguishable stages of automation:

  1. documentation
  2. recurring reminders
  3. semi-automatic
  4. full automation

The amount of human work for the actual process decreases with each stage, while the amount of human work for the automation increases. For most processes in an organization, there will be a sweet spot between process cost and automation cost somewhere on that spectrum. Our job as automaters is to find the sweet spot and don’t apply too much automation.

If you have a good story about not enough automation or too much automation or even about automation being just right – tell us in the comments!

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