SAN JOSE, Calif. — Change management is more than just a challenge for executives charged with implementing robotics in their organizations; it’s also a social responsibility, argued Poul Martin MOller, chief robotics officer for the Region of Southern Denmark.
True robotics leaders must consider human reactions to automation just as much as technology or business needs, said MOller at the CRO Network Summit here. Yesterday’s event, which preceded this week’s RoboBusiness 2016, was the first of its kind.
During the session “Implementing a Robotics Strategy Successfully,” MOller described the backlash he faced as he has worked to bring robots into Danish regional hospitals, which are in the midst of a government-mandated centralization. He also offered tips on how to avoid or overcome similar problems.
The need for automation is clear, but the need for change management is just as important.
“We have a ‘warm hands’ policy, but there aren’t enough warm hands to give care,” MOller said. “If you have one nurse for two clinics overnight, you had better hope you don’t have two heart attacks to attend to.”
“We’re under constant financial pressure to cut 2 percent per year, which adds up over eight years,” he said. “Technology is the obvious answer.”
CROs should get involved, mind interoperability
One of the first problems MOller faced as a chief robotics officer (CRO) was finding appropriate automation technology that met his requirements for interoperability.
“We looked at what companies had to offer, but it was all pretty shabby,” MOller said. “All the solutions had problems, especially as it relates to the domain of technology.”
“You can’t have six companies arguing about who’s responsible — we had to combine properties and raise it to a systematic level instead,” he said.
MOller praised American ingenuity as a metaphor for what hospital robots need to do. “Back in the day, [Web] browsers wouldn’t work together on PCs. They do now,” he said.
“There’s a reason why the U.S. won the women’s 100-meter relay in the Olympics — you’re good at handing off things,” he said. “The problem in these robotics systems was that there was no handing off of the baton.”
CROs should also be wary of vendor lock-in as part of change management, said MOller.
“Robotics companies shouldn’t determine how, why, or what we’re running or how we interoperate with other systems. It’s not their business,” he said.
“It’s easy to do a simple business case that shows profit,” MOller said. “You might be able to do it for 100 hospitals, but it could still be a terrible idea. You need a broad perspective to optimize across the board.”
One system for many sites
“We hooked up with a small Danish company founded by professors and students to build a robot small enough to get into emergency rooms,” MOller recalled.
“We brainstormed — if we could create exactly what we wanted, what would we create?” he said. “Not eight systems for eight parts of the hospital, but a single robot was thought impossible.”
“Now it’s running,” MOller said. “We’re using mobile robots with an arm in warehouses that’s the same as the one in the ER working with doctors.”
“That doesn’t mean that you should do everything with one system,” he added. “Specialist systems are adaptable.”
“For something as simple as traffic management, we needed to coordinate the robots with people, bicycles, trucks, and psych patients,” MOller said. “A psych ward seems like the worst possible place to put a robot.”
“It was good to be involved in the development” as an end user, he said. “The robot needs to get out of the way fast [in a busy hospital campus]. We couldn’t get that from a typical robotic system.”
MOller explained that people didn’t know how to react to machines that don’t move naturally, especially carts that suddenly move sideways like a crab. This has implications for autonomous vehicles.
“There’s a reason future cars look like normal cars,” he said. “We needed robots that behave like humans [expect] and can do their job in a smoother way.”
Change management can assuage robotics fears
Businesses may view automation as a solution for increasing productivity and profits, but CROs also need to address worker unrest, said MOller.
“We have high wages in Denmark,” he said. “If one unskilled human costs the same as 37 robots, an orderly will never win that race. This instills fears in people at the bottom.”
“We have to work with the healthcare system — like other sectors, we have to do more with less,” MOller said. “There’s no value connected to moving stuff within a hospital if there’s no transfer of knowledge with it, so why use a human?”
“The problem is with the way the entire organization is structured — who knows how to bring in robots?” he said. “People don’t want to be the head of a division with fewer people because of robots.”
A hostile work environment
“Our robots entered hostile territory as soon as they left the charging station,” MOller said. “We had to take fecal matter out of charging stations.”
“Nobody wants to be on the unemployment line,” he said. “We have good social security in Denmark, but employees have a lot of power.”
“How should you deal with displacement?” MOller asked. “You can rip off a bandage fast or slow. I recommend doing it slowly — it might be more painful, but if you lose the organization’s support in the process, you’re lost. Don’t make cutbacks too hastily.”
“The business case for automation sounds nice, for example, for trash removal, but you’ve got to do it all the way.” If a robotics executive can’t explain the value to all workers, he said, “you can’t really expect them to play along.”
“You need to show them an alternative — a way out of the nightmare,” MOller said. “You need to find a solution that’s fair. It’s paramount to get people on board to prevent them from sabotage.”
How to pay for retraining?
“Change management is important — you can’t force this on an organization,” he said. “You don’t want strikes in hospitals.”
“It’s going to sound terrible to Americans, but if you have a ton of unskilled labor and problems with the lack of skilled labor, fire and upgrade people — show them a way out,” MOller suggested.
He recommended taking the initial money saved by automation and investing it in retraining. “Would it be so bad to charge it for, say, the first six months to pay for retraining? The robot will run forever,” MOller said.
“Bringing automation challenges the social contract with employers and employees,” said MOller, who asserted that it should be re-examined and redesigned.
“If you cut people in a heartless way, you’ll get a heartless reaction,” he noted. “Get people to see the future and that they have a role in it.”
Rather than break up tightly-knit hospital teams, MOller said that retraining could preserve workers’ attachments to one another and ease the transition.
MOller acknowledged that the U.S. has different expectations than Europe for the role of government and business in addressing job displacement. However, the need for leadership is just as great, he said.
“On the other side, some workers in Denmark are demanding that their companies invest in technology,” MOller said. “They see that competitors’ investments are paying off and realize that to keep their jobs, they need to be competitive.”
“You can try to make sense out of chaos, or try to make sense in chaos,” he said. “We should get people accustomed to constantly changing jobs. There’s more money in raising people’s skills.”
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Shelter, then delegate for robotics success
“When you design these systems, you need to protect the technology from interference from the rest of the organization,” MOller said. “Every department will want special consideration, and you’d end up with a crooked system.”
“You may not need a robotics division, but it needs protection in the beginning.” he said. “Then you delegate responsibilities.”
“To set up a prerequisite for success, you need to transfer ownership out to departments, make them part of the process,” said MOller.
“We’re now in the implementation phase,” he said. “We’re getting all parties to have a say.”
“I don’t need 10 success stories; I need 10 divisions to produce success stories,” MOller said.
MOller answered several questions from the attendees, including one on his change management mistakes.
“I underestimated how important people are,” he said. “I was a cold-hearted bastard after 13 years of programming.”
“When you start threatening people’s jobs, it turns into war,” MOller said. “We had suits ruined with toothpaste, just a sign of us not doing change management the right way.”
“I didn’t get protection at the beginning” of automating hospitals, MOller added. “I got a lot of punches.”
Despite his struggles, MOller was firm in his belief that to properly adopt robotics, CROs need to master change management to convince both executives and workers of its fairness and necessity.
“Beyond efficiency is quality — robotics is ready for that,” he said. “We need something that can behave in a human setting.”