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2022 was a year of turbulence. While the manufacturing industry came out of the pandemic with promising opportunities to expand thanks to the rapid digital transformation that happened over the last two years, economic and supply chain disruptions have significantly held back its growth. From labor shortages to efficiency and productivity pressure, the challenges that manufacturers faced in 2022, unfortunately, are predicted to last well into 2023.
The Digital Workflows Roundtable at the Connected Worker Conference last month offered a chance to look into how leading manufacturers are approaching these enduring challenges and plan to address them in 2023 and beyond. As participants examined the current state of manufacturing and reflected on how the enduring challenges of the industry reflects in the individual organization, enhancing the resilience of the operations and maximizing values created from investments emerged as priorities for manufacturing in 2023. To achieve that, manufacturers need a strong and agile workforce that is empowered by technology and able to utilize digital tools to solve problems, optimize processes and continuously improve frontline operations.
These are the 3 best practices for connecting workers and digital tools to build a resilient organization that can withstand and adapt to economic uncertainties.
1. Listen to your frontline workers and empower them to solve problems
Participants in the roundtable discussion expressed their concerns over the underutilization of digital tools due to low enthusiasm from the workforce. This often happens when digital transformation strategies are decided by higher management and get filtered down to the ground level of operations. In this case, operators are forced to fit in with the new tools and systems even when they do not help solve their immediate pain points.
To ensure that new digital tools are actually helpful to frontline workers instead of intruding into their daily work, you need frequent communication with your frontline workforce on what challenges they are facing and the kind of support they need to solve those challenges.
Digital transformation projects should start with the operators themselves and continue to develop based on their feedback. By doing this, companies can have champions and product owners closer to the operations and ensure both the relevance and stickiness of their digital transformation projects.
Making your workers the owners of technology, not the other way around, also opens the door to opportunities for upskilling and reskilling the workforce. Digital workflows can assist with knowledge transfer, process standardization, and documentation, and overall improve the quality of processes. To address the labor shortage and widening skill gap in manufacturing, manufacturers are now paying more attention to helping their workers to move away from manual, repetitive tasks and instead focus on problem-solving.
2. Focus on value creation and avoid vanity metrics for digital transformation projects
Moving to digital workflows can transform your operations and uplevel your quality and efficiency, but only when you can identify target problems to solve and define the scope of your solutions in advance. A common pitfall for manufacturers is to try to solve too much at the same time only to end up with an overblown IT budget and a long time-to-value. While powerful, digital transformation is not a silver bullet for all operational pain points, at least not at once. Resources are limited, and with the pressure of uncertain economic conditions, manufacturers cannot risk investing in huge digital transformation projects and wait months, if not years, for implementation to take place.
The rejection of the traditional approach to digital transformation was reflected in a series of concerns raised by participants of the roundtable discussion. From challenges in gaining upper management’s buy-in to time-to-value and advocating digital tools to frontline operators, the discussions shared one common theme: Implementing digital tools needs to be agile. For digital workflows to stick, it has to be grounded in quick and tangible values, with agreement from operators regarding what metrics to track.
The best practice is to think about digital transformation in intervals, with each stage solving solid pains for frontline operators and utilizing the values created in the previous stage. The new mantra is to quickly deploy, iterate, and collect feedback along the way to improve and expand use cases continuously. This way, manufacturers can continue to expand their use cases without disrupting the operations or replacing their entire infrastructure.
For example, digital work instructions are a common starting point for digitalizing workflows. By moving away from paper-based instructions, which are error-prone and hard to update, to digital work instructions that are interactive and easy to update, one of the participants was able to speed up worker training and process visibility, reducing change over time from 6 hours to 1.5 hours. And this is just the start. With the production visibility and performance data gained from dynamic work instructions, manufacturers can start thinking about edge connectivity to integrate more machines and data into their workflows and then move on to connect siloed systems such as ERPs, communications, and alerts. Agile implementation allows manufacturers to maximize the value of their investment while minimizing risks and expanding their use cases one at a time.
Another best practice to ensure digital workflows continue to solve valid and critical pain points is to collect input from operators regarding which metrics to track and determine success. Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE) is one of the most common KPIs in tracking and evaluating digital transformation success. However, it is also one of the vanity metrics that fails to bring value to frontline operators. OEE measures how well a machine performs relative to its capacity during scheduled runs. Yet, it cannot provide any context for the data or explain why the machines are not efficient. The most common cause of inefficiency is not the machine itself but machine usage. Adding another metric that covers the human side of the operations, such as Overall Productivity Effectiveness (OPE), can reveal blindspots in the production line, identify high-friction areas and help workers can improve their utilization of machines.
3. Establish centers of excellence to enable citizen development and scale
No two plants are the same, and neither are their challenges. For digital solutions to be effective, they need to account for these fundamental differences in the workforce and operational pains among individual sites. This can be done by democratizing the shopfloor—enabling those closest to the operations to identify and solve problems with apps. Instead of relying on IT teams, engineers can leverage their hard-earned expertise to build production-ready applications using no-code platforms. These citizen developers quickly implement changes and continually improve processes based on feedback from operators.
Digital work instructions utilize citizen development to speed up processes and stay up-to-date even in rapidly changing situations. For factories with high-mix assemblies, high turnover, or rapid product cycles, paper-based instructions are inadequate for the task. Using no-code app platforms, engineers can design media-rich, visual work instructions with IoT connectivity that respond to operator actions in real-time and guarantee that instructions are followed to the letter.
To balance governance and citizen development and scale their digital operations to multiple sites, manufacturers need a center of excellence. A center of excellence is an internal library of best practices. It works bidirectionally to help workers understand when and where guardrails should exist, and what controls are required for compliance while capturing and disseminating best practices when they arise.
A center of excellence provides end-to-end visibility and a solution for collecting and aggregating data aggregating across multiple stages of production, facilities, and teams. It provides manufacturers with a birds-eye view of the entire production line, allowing them to create balance and buy-in, and maintain an agile operation that can quickly adapt to external changes without jeopardizing quality or governance.
As suggested during the roundtable discussion, growth is possible even in the face of economic uncertainty and ongoing talent challenges. The key to navigating this challenging period and coming out of it a winner is to focus on your most important asset: the workers. Moving to digital is a must, but it has to be done with frontline workers as the drivers of innovation and owners of technology. Once manufacturers have established that strong connection between workers and digital tools, resilience and scalability will follow as natural results.
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