POV: The future of industry isn’t digital


The authors of ‘Augmented Lean’ argue that an augmented workforce isn’t cookie-cutter, but more innovative, and it yields lasting results.

The key challenges affecting industry today are similar all over the world. Capturing value from automation is at the top, particularly for companies that rely on manufacturing, factories, or supply chains. Machines can allude to value, but true value capture cannot be done by machines. When the connection between machines, software, and people gets lost, the results are disastrous. Machines sit idle. Software stalls productivity. Workers are frustrated.

Machine input needs to be converted into contextual information by human workers. Only by constantly adapting to circumstances, markets, and business models, can knowledge be activated so that value is captured.

Yet, automation and digital transformation are viewed as different things. Automation often refers to machine efficiency while digital points to productivity and, occasionally, operational software. The workforce gets lost in the middle, even though augmenting the workforce is the reason machines and digital became relevant in the first place.

Digital is only one of several key enablers, and perhaps not even the most important one. Instead, we need to ask the more fundamental question: What constitutes success for industrial firms?

Bringing in new talent poses another challenge: that of teaching them the ropes. The machines on the shop floors today are not ready for it. Despite costing millions of dollars, they are often complicated to run and require separate training. Overcoming the impact of experienced workers resigning in droves adds to the fire.

Yet, the two challenges—automation and talent management—are not viewed as two sides of the same coin. Instead, we have separate efforts to invest in automation and initiatives to invest in skills without making the connection. Nobody seems to be willing to create machines that are easier to operate. Why is that?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of manufacturing workers separated from their job in 2021 alone. Retiring workers is obviously an urgent challenge. But is it the crucial one?

recent Deloitte study found manufacturers may see 2.1 million jobs go unfilled by 2030. The manufacturing skills gap seems compounded by the fact that the majority of workers prefer jobs in other sectors, such as retail, services, and technology.

So, is the future of manufacturing tied to wooing younger talent from millennials and Gen Z? If so, the success would, at first glance, seem to depend on digital. These are generations who grew up with smartphones, robots, and AI, and also with a high awareness of sustainability. But the future of manufacturing is not so much a digital challenge as a human challenge.

The first obstacles on the shop floor today are pen, paper, and clipboards. Annotating information that way means processes are error prone, inefficient, and lack opportunities for direct feedback across visibility lines in the factory.

But digitizing a process is not always the panacea it might seem to be. The decisions on what process to digitize needs to be based on what true bottlenecks are, and can only happen in collaboration with frontline workers. Not all can be digitized right away. Moving too fast without the proper worker buy-in might lead to higher error rates and more downtime. Make the case for putting down pen and paper, and provide an alternative—don’t just prohibit their use.

At the other extreme, the technologies that seem to matter the most to manufacturing at the moment are complex and expensive machines. There, the challenge is to rewire these machines so that they don’t take ages to get up to speed on, and operate. The digital interfaces that are starting to matter here often sit on top of these machines, as they feed into the machines and extract data that is sent off to operator monitors and dashboards across the shop floor, factory floor, or even across the supply chain.

Achieving productivity from machines is not so much a “digital” challenge as it is one of standardization, interoperability, and the excessive reliance on third-party contractors. The right digital tools exist to extract information, but many times the interfaces are cumbersome and the role of digital solutions is mostly to simplify things.

Unutilized talent on the shop floor is a big opportunity. Operators could mean so much more to their organization if they were allowed to see the bigger picture. With digital tools that explicitly allow the sharing of contextual information such as real-time feedback, adjacent processes, or supply chain developments, manufacturing workers could become knowledge workers. Imagine how much innovation could be accomplished if the entire workforce was innovating, not just our scientists, engineers, or managers.

What digital tools should do is remain in the background so the workers can continue unabated. The best interface is invisible, seamless. The metaphor is “fluid,” literally like liquids relate to a solid.

Even after factories have long been modernized, cleaned up, and are less noisy, the sector has thought it needs to fight off a bad reputation. Perhaps manufacturers should be more patient. Perception change will most likely happen by itself. Manufacturing is hands-on work. You make things that matter to the economy. At best, you work in unison with advanced machines and robots, augmented by machine learning algorithms and sensors. Engineers who build operational applications with worker input ensure technology moves into the background, where it belongs.

At forward-looking industrial firms such as Stanley Black & Decker, J&J, and DMG MORI, engineers get to engage with exciting, lightweight software applications that don’t require coding skills. As a result, they can enable lasting quality improvements through building operational apps that feed from, and communicate results from, both human and machine-generated production processes. But it’s not just the tools they use, but the management frameworks they deploy that creates the magic. These organizations are willing to give up some of their control, only to reserve the right to tighten the ship, if needed.

The best industrial organizations balance bottom-up initiative and top down control, or hacking and governance. The result, as we demonstrate in the upcoming book, Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, is building an augmented workforce. There are many ways to do this, and no stepwise approach will get you there.

In order to move from automation to augmentation, you need to let change emerge. That’s what happens when you truly empower your employees, up and down the organizational ladder.

Instead of going digital first, manufacturers need to first take workplace walkthroughs (e.g., Gemba-walks) among their workers. The aim is to discover true bottlenecks instead of fixing theoretical ones.

The industry also needs a way to engage and communicate to new scores of talent. It is detrimental if the message is based on PR and hype. Improving your workforce depends on having an attractive workplace to offer with opportunities to grow, to lead, and to innovate.

Digitally enabled or not, implementing someone else’s vision for organizational improvement (including ours) is a recipe for disaster. The future of industry is not digital, it is human. Instead of buying into the technological hype, today’s industrial leaders need to build a human-centric workplace that rearranges machines and software around their own workforce. An augmented workforce is not cookie-cutter, but it is more innovative, and it yields lasting results.

This article first appeared www.fastcompany.com

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