Preparing for The Revolution

How to adapt to the fast-approaching workplace transformation

by Henry J. Lindborg

In ceremonies that sustain tradition with pomp and circumstance, university graduates are exhorted to perform good works and advised about careers in a rapidly changing world. Most of these messages are forgotten within minutes, but some make news.

In spring 2017, Market Watch’s headline summed up the response to one message delivered by tech gurus: "When Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg Sound the Same Dire Warning About Jobs, It’s Time to Listen."1 It is.

The message is about the creative destruction of jobs. The effects of the internet are clearly visible across the country in the abandoned big box stores and malls rapidly going to ruin. At risk are up to 7.5 million of the nation’s 16 million retail jobs.2

Almost invisible, but on the near horizon, are the effects of emerging innovations based on artificial intelligence (AI). These include self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionize the transportation industry and displace even more workers.


According to an influential University of Oxford study, 47% of total U.S. employment may be automated over the next 10 to 20 years in a new workplace transition—one that’s different from those of the past.3

The automation of routine work is nothing new. What has changed is technology that now also threatens the nonroutine cognitive tasks of knowledge workers. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, describes this as the "fourth industrial revolution" involving "the transformation of entire systems across (and within) countries, companies, industries and society as a whole."4

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, though few occupations could be fully automated, currently available technology "will affect almost all occupations, not just factory workers and clerks, but also landscape gardeners and dental lab technicians, fashion designers, insurance sales representatives, and CEOs, to a greater or lesser degree." "As a rule of thumb," the McKinsey report continued, "about 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable."5

Honing the right skills

Given these predictions, what should recent graduates and those further along in their careers know?

Taking a global perspective, the Brookings Institution answers: "If that determination is made narrowly on the basis of the pattern of job creation and elimination, it likely leads to an emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] skills. If instead it is made on the basis of the increasing speed of disruption and the changing organization of economic activity", then this raises the importance of soft skills and business skills to help workers adapt to a changing marketplace and to make optimal choices. Workers themselves appear to see the wisdom in this assessment: the most popular course on the online education platform, Coursera, is on ‘learning to learn.’"6

Indeed, research shows that soft skills, creative intelligence and social intelligence (social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, and assisting and caring for others) have staying power,7 and McKinsey notes that "managing and developing others has the lowest automation potential."8 So, significant activities in quality, including change management, remain safe from robots.

Interpreting the machines

But what about quality tools and techniques that have evolved since the early contributions of W. Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby and Joseph Juran?

"A Strategist’s Guide to Industry 4.0," based on Schwab’s thinking, is illuminating. In addressing analytics and understanding patterns of data for improvement, the authors "consider the last major operational revolution, the quality and lean production approach that began in the Japanese auto industry and spread around the world. Exercises such as the ‘five whys’ and statistical analyses taught manufacturing engineers—and people on the assembly line—to monitor the variance in their efforts, seek opportunities for improvement, and attune themselves to the flow of the work. This resulted in unprecedented levels of quality and reliability. Industry 4.0 brings that same fine-grained awareness into the machines themselves; it makes the value chain self-conscious."9

Note that quality is referenced in the past tense.

In industry, as well as the many fields in which lean principles are applied, big data analytics will require quality professionals to become interpreters of what the machines know, applying skills well beyond the five whys and statistical process control to improve systems in organizations that may themselves be rapidly restructured. As such, they will be important players in corporate strategy and training—if they keep up.

Shifting focus

In quality, as in any field affected by AI, education and training will be critical for adaptation. In the whole economy, there is a race between education and jobs lost to technology.

What are the displaced factory and retail workers, truck drivers, tax preparers and telemarketers to do? Within organizations, what relevant training is available to those whose jobs are restructured?

How well do educators know the new world of work? How is lifelong learning addressed by our educational institutions? These can be themes for graduation ceremonies in 2018.

In the meantime, as we listen to Gates and Zuckerberg, we should heed seasoned experts such as Ed Gordon, an award-winning author of books on closing the skills gap: "The bottom line," Gordon writes, "unless we adopt proactive talent-creation policies now, we will face a world in which there will be a lot of people without jobs and, at the same time, a growing number of jobs without people."10

And quality professionals, having helped lay the foundation for the fourth industrial revolution, should prepare themselves to lead in thought and action.


  1. Quentin Fottrell, "When Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg Sound the Same Dire Warning About Jobs, It’s Time to Listen," www.marketwatch.com, May 16, 2017.
  2. Michael Shavel, Sebastian Vanderzeil and Emma Currier, "Retail Automation: Stranded Workers? Opportunities and Risks for Labor and Automation," cornerstonecapinc.com, May 2017.
  3. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?," www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk, Sept. 17, 2013.
  4. Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, 2016.
  5. James Manyika, Michael Chui, Mehdi Miremadi, Jacques Bughin, Katy George, Paul Willmott and Martin Dewhurst, "Harnessing Automation for a Future That Works," www.mckinsey.com, January 2017.
  6. Laurence Chandy, "The Future of Work in the Developing World," www.brookings.edu, Jan. 31, 2017.
  7. Benedikt, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?," see reference 3.
  8. Manyika, "Harnessing Automation for a Future That Works," see reference 5.
  9. Reinhard Geissbauer, Jesper Vedsø and Stefan Schrauf, "A Strategist’s Guide to Industry 4.0," www.strategy-business.com, May 9, 2016.
  10. Edward E. Gordon, "Understanding the Talent-Crisis," www.imperialcorp.com, 2016.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

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