Car assembly plants can teach a valuable lesson in IT automation

To stay relevant, your business needs to leverage IT automation, taking a lesson from the high efficiency of car assembly plants.

Have you ever visited an automotive assembly plant? A few years ago, I had the opportunity to tour the General Motors assembly plant, and I saw many parallels to what I do as a programmer and system administrator. It was a lesson in efficiency and just-in-time resource delivery that is applicable to both the assembly plant and IT.

Every vehicle began as a rolling chassis, just a base frame with four wheels and an engine. I was expecting to see parts coming from various directions, with robots welding pieces together. Instead, the robot was more of a large parts bin, holding radiators, doors, windshields, seats, hoods and everything else that it would need for that particular vehicle, and each part was on an independent arm. As the chassis rolled through various stations, a part would drop down to a level where a person would then maneuver it into place and secure it to the vehicle. When the vehicle passed through the door assembly position, two doors with the right trim packages and color were dropped down. A worker, who only had suction cups and a wrench, moved it into place, the robotic arm moved out of the way and the worker secured the bolts. It was like a dance -- a very efficient, well-designed dance that involved robots and workers effortlessly moving and positioning objects that weighed hundreds of pounds.

It hit me that the secret to that automation was loading the robot with all the right parts. The assembly line rotated between vehicle models in a variety of colors and trim packages. The entire process was dependent on those robots being loaded with the right parts for the vehicle to be assembled. The critical intelligence was applied to the loading of the robot (IT), which then enabled the assembly line workers (the business) to do their job more efficiently. The robot would follow that vehicle all the way to the last station of the assembly line. If a wrong-color door was delivered, or even one with the wrong trim package, the vehicle had to be pulled to the side and fixed manually, a process that is very costly. This process is a great analogy for IT. If we deliver the wrong information or provide a resource at the wrong time, the business suffers.

This kind of efficiency took decades to design. Automation has been a long time coming, and it has taken decades for business to realize the full potential of technology. In turn, it has taken IT departments a long time to realize that they exist to serve the business. This is where automation has entered the picture. Technology was able to provide great benefits to the business, while providing very little automation. Corporate IT was like a number of individual robots running around with parts, more focused on delivering a certain volume of parts rather than on the manner in which they delivered them. There was no cooperation -- placing a large burden on workers who had to organize and move parts manually. Storage teams did not communicate with networking, system administrators did not coordinate well with developers, and database admins didn’t talk to anyone. We created silos that prevented true enterprise automation. Now, for the first time, I see those walls being torn down.

Unfortunately, in many cases, it's more that technology vendors are tearing down those walls instead of IT professionals. Companies are developing and implementing open standards, exposing application programming interfaces and embracing the idea of the software-defined data center. Some IT professionals are anxious to jump on this new wave after spending years begging for these technologies, while others are still reluctant. The willingness of IT departments to adopt automation is no longer an issue. To stay relevant, your business needs to leverage IT automation, taking a lesson from the high efficiency of car assembly plants.

This was first published in December 2013

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