Automation Reduces Marginal Cost of Nonautomated Tasks

In a recent study, researches looked at the effects of automation on in a supermarket. They found that by automating the process of collecting payment, productivity of the non-automated task of scanning items increased 10%. An explanation for the improvement is that automation enabled specialization and specialization reduces the marginal cost of the other tasks which increases effort and therefore productivity.

This makes intuitive sense—being able to offload tasks frees up time to focus on the other ones.

What I find even more interesting is the inverse implication—manual tasks increase the marginal cost of all non-automated tasks. In other words, time and costs are higher for each manual task introduced into a workflow.

Read Automation Enables Specialization: Field Evidence.

See also:

  • Lump of Labor and Why Automation Doesn’t Increase Unemployment

    There is not a finite amount of work that can be distributed throughout an economy. The amount of jobs are not tied to a zero-sum, “lump of labor”. Worries about immigration and automation taking away jobs and leading to unemployment are unfounded. Since the number of jobs are not fixed, changes in the workforce and technology lead to new jobs and or simply different jobs over time.

  • The Second Time, Write it Down

    If you do something more than once, write down the steps taken to complete the task. Chances are, if you have to do something twice, you’ll need to repeat it more times later.

  • Double Buffering

    In a two party system you never want both party A and party B buffering at the same time because it creates artificial delays in the system.

  • How Long Should You Spend Automating Tasks?

    This chart, adapted from xkcd, tells you the amount of time saved over 5 years based on how much time you are able to shave off of the task. For example, a task that you do daily that you are able to reduce by 30 minutes will save 5 weeks of time over 5 years. This chart can also tell you how much time you should spend on trying to optimize so you don’t spend more time than it’s worth.