Don’t Automate Waste

Keith C Norris
3 min readNov 16, 2023

Embracing Disfluency: When Making Things Difficult Yields Better Outcomes

Introduction

In a world that celebrates efficiency and automation, the concept of intentionally introducing difficulty into a process may seem counterintuitive. However, there is a growing recognition that sometimes, making things more challenging can lead to better results. This counterintuitive approach is known as “disfluency,” and it challenges the prevailing notion that smoother, automated processes are always superior. In this blog post, we’ll explore the idea of disfluency, emphasizing the importance of not automating away essential aspects of a task. As the saying goes, “Don’t automate waste.”

Understanding Disfluency

Disfluency refers to the deliberate introduction of friction or difficulty into a task or process. The rationale behind this approach is rooted in cognitive psychology, suggesting that when information is harder to process, it is often better retained and understood. In the realm of skill acquisition, introducing challenges can lead to more profound learning and improved performance.

“Don’t automate waste” is a term used frequently in Lean/Six Sigma circles to summarize the concept that before you take the time to automate a process, you should eliminate waste from the process. It encapsulates the idea that not every task is suited for automation, especially when removing the human element diminishes the purpose or quality of the work. To illustrate this concept, let’s delve into the example of a batting cage.

Automated Pitching Machines vs. Automated Batting Machines

In the world of baseball training, automated pitching machines are a common sight in batting cages. These machines deliver consistent pitches, allowing batters to hone their skills with precision and repeatability. This is a classic example of using automation to enhance a process. However, the story takes a turn when considering the concept of automated batting machines.

Imagine a batting cage where the batters are replaced entirely by machines designed to swing the bat and hit the pitched balls. On the surface, this might seem like the next logical step in automation — removing the need for human batters altogether. However, this approach neglects a fundamental aspect of the batting process — the human skill and decision-making involved in recognizing and reacting to different pitches.

The Essence of the Batter

Batters bring a unique set of skills to the game. Their ability to read the pitcher’s movements, anticipate the trajectory of the ball, and make split-second decisions about whether to swing or not is a complex interplay of physical and cognitive abilities. Removing the human element from the batting process eliminates the very essence of what makes batting an art and a sport.

In this scenario, the disfluency lies in deliberately maintaining the difficulty of the task — keeping the human batter in the equation despite the availability of automated batting machines. The difficulty of reading and responding to unpredictable pitches is what makes the batting experience meaningful and valuable.

Learning from Disfluency

The batting cage example teaches us an essential lesson about the judicious application of automation. While automated pitching machines enhance the training experience by providing consistent throws, replacing the batters with machines eliminates the core purpose of the activity — the development of human skill and decision-making.

In various domains, disfluency can be a powerful tool for improving outcomes. In education, studies have shown that introducing challenges in the learning process, such as varied fonts or spaced repetition, enhances long-term retention and understanding. In the workplace, creating deliberate friction in decision-making processes can lead to more thoughtful and well-considered choices.

Conclusion

The concept of disfluency challenges the prevailing narrative that automation and efficiency are always synonymous with improvement. “Don’t automate waste” urges us to carefully evaluate which tasks benefit from automation and which require the human touch to maintain their essence and purpose.

In the case of a batting cage, embracing the disfluency of keeping human batters in the equation ensures that the art and skill of batting are preserved. As we navigate an increasingly automated world, let’s remember that not all tasks are suited for complete automation, and in some cases, intentionally introducing difficulty can lead to superior outcomes.

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Keith C Norris

CEO of Complete XRM, inc, Fanatic about Planning, husband, father, and road bike enthusiast.