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Augmented Lean: Growth and Innovation Through an Empowered Workforce

A comprehensive look at the origins of Augmented Lean and why manufacturers are adopting this practical, human-centric approach to digital transformation across their operations.

Despite decades of investment in manufacturing automation, today’s industrial workforce is underserved by technology and, as a result, our factories aren’t as productive as they should be.

At the end of the day, the "old way" of managing digital transformation is insufficient to address many of today's challenges that plague manufacturing businesses.

As a result, manufacturers require a new approach to digital transformation that focuses on empowering frontline workers by giving them easy access to the tools and technologies they need to do their jobs, rather than relying explicitly on technology to boost productivity.

This new framework is called Augmented Lean and is focused on fostering innovation by enabling people to thrive through growth, productivity, and loyalty.

Chapter One: What is the Augmented Lean Methodology?

Augmented Lean is a management framework where technology and automation, rather than being the dominant approach, are used sparingly and intentionally to augment what workers do.

The methodology requires a “hybrid mindset” approach to operations where, in addition to the traditional top-down influence from management, workers can have a bottom-up impact on how the shop floor operates.

In a recent Forbes article, Natan Linder described Augmented Lean as “a platform for human-centric technology that empowers everyone to shape their shop floor experience”.

He wrote: “Not only do they [factory workers] get easy access to information and analytics dashboards that help them carry out their work more efficiently. Operators are at the center of a process where technology is a tool, not an objective.”

Chapter Two: The Origins of Augmented Lean

The Augmented Lean methodology was developed and popularized by Natan Linder, PhD and Trond Arne Undheim, PhD in their book, Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations.

The origins of Augmented Lean are borne out of a number of prevailing trends that are changing the way manufacturing executives are approaching the way they manage their businesses. Some of these trends include:

1. An Increase in disruptive events

As we've seen over the past several years, manufacturing supply chains are not immune to disruption. In fact, manufacturing at a broad level is subject to various macroeconomic influences that affect the flow of products and materials at a global level.

2. Changing workforce dynamics

There are two primary challenges impacting the global manufacturing workforce. First, we've all heard about the effect that the "Great Resignation" has had on businesses across a wide variety of industries, and certainly, manufacturing has been heavily impacted as a result of industry veterans leaving the workforce.

Second, there is a new wave of young, innovative workers joining the manufacturing industry, and with them, a new attitude around how these digital natives can be onboarded to an industry that, in many respects, has been slow to adopt digital tools at a global scale.

3. Increased adoption of cloud technologies

The transition to the cloud has been both challenging and exciting for manufacturers. While many manufacturers have fully integrated cloud technology across their operations, there is still a significant opportunity for more businesses to leverage these expansive solutions to gain a more holistic view of their business.

Chapter Three: Lean Manufacturing vs. Augmented Lean

The concept of Lean Manufacturing has been around since the post-WWII era and can be described as a systematic framework for eliminating waste from a manufacturing system, or value stream, without sacrificing productivity. In other words, it aims to create more value for customers while reducing waste.

Key aspects of the Lean Manufacturing framework include:

  • Limiting waste and decreasing costs through productivity tracking,

  • Striving for continuous improvement across all key tasks, teams, and processes, and,

  • Improving employee morale and company culture when widely adopted.

But, as Natan and Trond argue in Augmented Lean, there are a number of challenges when implementing this type of framework:

1. Training and “tribal knowledge”: Manufacturing technology can be complex and expensive. This is problematic when a combination of a retiring workforce and a high turnover of staff makes training expensive and retaining organizational knowledge difficult.

2. Lack of real-time data tracking: Pen, paper, and clipboards are still often the key means of data collection and production tracking for many organizations. That needs to change, and it requires a new ecosystem to be built.

3. Unutilized talent: Operators can become knowledge workers if given enough contextual information. They need to be empowered to shape their shop floor experience, enabling them to carry out their work more efficiently.

4. Overcoming the ‘Lean Plateau’: While aiming for continuous improvement is admirable, simply focusing on quality improvement or continuous streamlining of processes is unlikely to be sustainable over the long term.

Chapter Four: Human Factors are Driving the Need for Change

There are various human factors impacting manufacturers at a global level. In the US alone, there is a significant labor shortage with up to 2.1 million manufacturing jobs expected to be unfilled through 2030.

With a generation of skilled factory workers retiring, manufacturing organizations are struggling to replace them. The situation has been made worse by the ‘great resignation’ currently affecting the wider economy. On top of that, the manufacturing sector is struggling to attract younger workers because of a perception that the type of jobs it offers are dull and antiquated.

Incorporating an Augmented Lean methodology that empowers workers will help improve potential employees’ perceptions of the industry.

Chapter Five: Why the Shift Toward Augmented Lean is Needed

The traditional lean approach assumed that manufacturing would become increasingly automated and the workforce would need to be structured around that happening. According to Trond, that mindset needs to change.

“What we are saying, and we’re not alone here, is that the human-centric perspective is actually much more effective. And it’s a much more realistic picture of the shop floor, and of the supply chain.”

It was wrong to assume machines should take priority, with workers forced to fit around them.

“That is actually not a recipe for sustained innovation. It’s not even a recipe for sustained quality and progress.”

Instead, it is vital to incorporate a bottom-up approach (led by workers) in regard to how the shop floor operates, as well as having top-down input from management.

While top-down governance is important “if you don’t immediately work on the bottom-up perspective, and start allowing workers to invent ways that they can use technology in the way that they see best, then you’re also in trouble,” he says.

Without a bottom-up focus “a lot of automation efforts fail…it’s not that you just get half the benefits, you basically don’t get any benefits if you don't have both things firmly in mind”.

Chapter Six: Tips for Implementing Augmented Lean

At this stage, you may be asking yourself, "how big a shift is Augmented Lean" and "how can I make this shift in my organization? There are a few different lenses through which we can answer these questions.

Manufacturing Operations Manager/Executive

One of the most impactful steps you can take when it comes to shifting toward an Augmented Lean mindset is to get an accurate and complete understanding of how things actually work across your operations.

Many business leaders set themselves up for failure when they simply look at theoretical studies or analyst reports that cite some performance improvement coming as a result of implementing digital solutions.

It's imperative that managers take the time to do gemba walks and truly understand the gaps within their existing systems processes.

Industrial Engineer

Given the speed at which things are changing within not only an individual manufacturing site, but the business environment as a whole, it's imperative that engineers be equipped with the tools they need to adapt their processes and meet the needs of their business in real-time.

Gone are the days when engineers have the time and resources to receive approvals from management and support from IT teams to implement the tools they need to do their job better. An increasingly dynamic business environment calls for agile business solutions to respond in an effective manner.

Frontline/Shop Floor Operator

Ultimately, it's imperative that those carrying out the work on the shop floor approach everything with a continuous learning mindset.

As we navigate an industry with significant labor shortages, operators should feel empowered to demand clear instructions and training, as well as tools that will help them carry out their work efficiently and effectively.

Things to keep in mind

Think in sprints and encourage a "hacking" mentality

Encourage disruptive change from any place across your organization. Continuous improvement projects can scale if you have a specific process to empower, validate, and standardize these efforts.

Train your workforce in real-time

On-the-job training is going to become increasingly important as businesses work to quickly ramp up new workers across their business.

Rethink your technology

These days, there are certain technologies that are so complex that this adaptive, agile methodology we've been discussing simply is not possible.

Technology should be adapted and modified to fit into your business processes, not the other way around.

Join the Augmented Lean community

Many of the ideas that we're discussing here are not new. There are many industry professionals out there that have grown up with lean, but are increasingly realizing that slapping automation and digital solutions on top of lean principles doesn't necessarily ensure positive outcomes.

At the end of the day, our goal is to build a community of like-minded professionals that understand the importance of putting humans at the center of digital transformation initiatives to enable true continuous improvement into the future.

Chapter Six: Conclusion

The ideas and strategies outlined in this ebook are just a small snapshot of the insights drawn from our internal philosophies, as well as countless conversations that we've had with customers and industry experts over the past several years.

If you're interested in learning more about the Augmented Lean methodology, there are a number of resources available including the Augmented Podcast, hosted by Trond Arne Undheim, as well as Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, authored by Trond and Tulip CEO Natan Linder. If you're interested in ordering a copy of the book, you can do so by visiting the Augmented Lean website.

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