I have recently been doing more research on technology’s impact on improving organizational design, culture and employee engagement. It seems to impact all industries in a variety of ways. Technological advancements and digital transformation are providing leaders and managers opportunities to tackle some of the workplace’s most challenging and important initiatives: culture and engagement being at the top of the list.
Although all industries can take advantage of these advancements, one industry my company has been doing quite a bit of work in lately is manufacturing. Yes, I realize that’s a broad field impacting many organizations and lines of business. But it’s become an area of fascination for me as we see more manufacturing companies starting to embrace technology in order to overcome some of the industry’s challenges around talent acquisition, engagement, efficiency and employee retention.
In the recent past, manufacturers were stunned at the rate of innovation. It rattled them, with companies trying to keep up with the pace, spending huge amounts of money to retool, modernize and stay on top. Over time, manufacturers tried to modernize by thinking of technology as a replacement for their workforce. And this was where manufacturing got into trouble.
Thinking of machines as human replacements led to an unengaged, dispirited workforce. Manufacturers lost their greatest asset: their human capital. The workforce, the culture of the plant floor, became just part of the automation, tasked with doing repetitive functions over and over again. The work was less and less meaningful, and it gained a perception among prospective workers as a meaningless job.
Among the biggest problems facing the industry today is developing a new generation of workers. According to The Manufacturing Institute, it’s estimated that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs need to be filled in the next decade and, if the industry doesn’t adapt, two million of those jobs will go unfilled.
If the industry is going to survive and thrive, they need to start rebuilding a culture of innovation that starts by leveraging the human capital on the plant floor. In other words, it’s about people.
The human brain is the best computer around. No computer currently at work in American manufacturing can match the power of the human mind. More importantly, the more complex machines become, the more often they break down. When they break down, only humans can fix them.
The true path forward, and the most successful one, is to develop a culture of engagement and ownership among the workforce. Basically, a culture of total accountability.
Engagement comes from giving employees responsibility and holding them accountable. These are the two keys to building a positive productive culture.
- Access to Actionable Data
In a plant floor setting, responsibility comes from the delivery of data to employees in real time, in the task, so that they can act to spot problems and improve performance. Building a culture of continued improvement, where an entire company is working to the best of its abilities at all levels, begins with trust. Leadership has to believe its employees can be challenged and will respond to challenge.
In the Navy SEAL teams we operated in what we called “VUCA” environments. Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. The plant floor is its own kind of battlefield. The plant floor is a complex, fast moving environment where the workforce is constantly receiving data. Currently, data is reviewed after events happen. The data is outdated and old by the time it can be acted on. It would be like running a SEAL mission, then receiving the intel for mission planning afterwards!
For the plant floor worker, knowing what happened hours, even days ago, is uninspiring and deflating. What good is information when it can’t be acted on? If, for example, the ‘old’ data showed an error in production yesterday, it’s possible for an entire shift’s work needing to be redone. No one, not in any job, wants to think that his or her efforts have been wasted.
The task is to give each worker meaningful, live data. New cloud-based technologies are now available to deliver meaningful, live data to every station on the plant floor. Providing workers with powerful, accurate data will inspire workers to ask the right questions, solve problems, and, ultimately, create a more efficient workplace.
- Transparency and Accountability
Mobile technologies have given each individual in modern society immediate information. New generations of workers live in more transparency than any other generation. This is a growing trend and manufacturing must follow this trend.
It’s time to leverage the technology of mobility and give each member of the plant floor access to all workings of the plant floor, all the way to the c-suite. With a transparent view of operations, individuals on the floor can spot operational trends, identify flaws, and suggest improvements. Workers move out of the realm of cog in the machine to active, productive team members working for a greater good.
Once companies have embraced transparency, when all employees are engaged in operations, then accountability must be activated. In an all-transparent landscape, no one can hide. If problems arise, they can be addressed quickly. In this process, workers are more engaged in their work because their teammates can view their work. Then the culture becomes one of rapid learning and application – a continuous feedback loop.
I want to be clear. This is not about big brother. When every member of the team can see the work of everyone else, it lessens the frightening burden of mistakes. Errors are quickly addressed, workers are more engaged in their tasks, and operations are more efficient.
Company leadership must accept that every member of the team, for example, can stop production if they spot an error. That is control that managers and CEOs do not give up lightly. But it means that problems are solved in real time, not hours later when data is reviewed and corrective actions are finally taken. In a transparent and accountable environment, problems are solved quickly, downtime is limited, and production moves forward.
Technology can be a significant driver of engagement, ownership and contribution. Leading2Lean, for example, is a manufacturing technology company, whose cloud-based lean execution system, CloudDISPATCH, is driving engagement and business results right now in some of the largest companies in the world. The company’s software provides full plant floor transparency to every workstation on a plant floor.
This real-time access to data helps the worker identify, prioritize and solve the biggest problems on the plant floor. This is not science fiction or some future industry technology out of reach for most companies. It’s available now, and the results are clear. Companies using Leading2Lean’s system are seeing significant increases in productivity and reduction in the cost of product as a result of people using technology to drive improvement.
Take for example, Autoliv, the world’s largest automotive safety supplier, who deployed Leading2Lean’s CloudDISPATCH in all 82 of its plants in 2017. As a result, the company has since seen a 30% faster response time to equipment issues, a 12% reduction in cost of spare parts, as well as improvement in production equipments’ availability to produce by as much as 23% at some sites. Autoliv improved employee engagement, which in turn lead to measurable business improvements.
- Personal Value
Manufacturing’s biggest problem is developing a future workforce. In the past, money was the strongest draw for workers. We are now in a low unemployment environment where workers are free to choose where they want to work. If manufacturing is to remain strong, it must change perceptions about the nature of the work and it must find ways to encourage workers to take on manufacturing jobs.
Part of the industry’s shift must be to demonstrate that the modern plant floor is a dynamic, technology-driven industry that is challenging, rewarding and essential to the economy. The industry must match the personal values of new generations of workers. Again, Leading2Lean software, and others like it, use technologies that match the talents of new generations weaned on mobile technology and electronic game playing. If the manufacturing industry wants to attract new generations of workers, they must speak in the language these new workers already know.
More than that, companies must create vibrant cultures that make employees proud. Pride is earned when workers are given access to information, challenged with the responsibility to make decisions, and held accountable to their fellow employees.
A company culture is built when every single employee’s job is essential to the whole. In the end, it’s about giving employees a worthy story to take home, to discuss with a spouse or friend. Winning companies are the companies that make each worker a hero each and every day.