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5 Lessons From the Teams Defining Manufacturing’s Next Act


In manufacturing, the operational experiments of March and April are settling into something closer to a steady state. 


By now, most organizations have had a chance to take stock of what worked and what didn’t. And they’ve had a chance to adjust their operations and roadmap to a future where the only certain thing is uncertainty. 


So in this post I want to share some of the best insights I’ve heard from leading manufacturers about the next phase in operations.1 These are folks who found ways to thrive under pressure. We can all learn a thing or two. 


1. Manufacturing is better suited to remote work than anyone could have guessed 


For years, conventional wisdom held that all manufacturing work needed to be done on site. Lean practitioners will tell you that it’s always best to “go to gemba”—to the place where the work is done. It’s hard to fix a physical process without being there physically.  


This may still be true, but many manufacturers have found ways to empower remote teams and increase the amount of work done off site. 


Ryanne Harms, VP of People Operations at Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF), noted her team found ways to make remote collaboration work. When PFF’s frontline workers encountered an engineering problem, they brainstormed solutions in real-time with off-site engineers. 


“Not everyone’s back on site. We had some of our [remote] engineers working with production teams and supervisors on the line,” she said of her team’s remote strategy. Imagine “Zooming in the VP of Engineering trying to troubleshoot something on the line.” 


Audra Kirkland, Head of Digital Manufacturing at Terex, found the move to remote work had a productive influence on some parts of her operations.


This was particularly true for training. “We normally have peer training,” Kirkland started. But now Terex is testing digital training applications that can be practiced remotely. “We’re moving through a guided work approach where we’re having people learn on the job as they’re doing the work, but through a guided process without a human having to be right next to them. It’s been eye opening how we can use technology in order to limit exposure in the future now that we know what the future may hold.” 


2. Having the right tech makes a difference


Each of the manufacturers I’ve spoken with have stressed the importance of technology. This makes sense, as the need for digitization has been one of the clearest lessons of the pandemic. 

But every expert I’ve heard from has been unanimous on a single point: technology alone isn’t the answer. You need the right technology and a healthy digital culture. 


For many, this move to digital began with tools to help protect workers safety and technology for managing the transition to remote and hybrid operations. Many of these systems shared similar elements—questionnaires to determine whether an individual should report to work or stay home, automated temperature checks, proximity logs to help with internal contract tracing efforts. 

Others have stressed that speed and flexibility are the name of the game now. And no doubt you’ve noticed that organizations are taking a renewed interest in Agile. 


When manufacturers use the term Agile, they typically working on short sprints over the waterfall model, emphasizing small value delivered quickly, and a mindset that prizes experimentation and testing to gather as much data as quickly as possible. When it comes to navigating the pandemic, each of these points has been crucial for adapting to circumstances as they develop. 


This emphasis on speed and agility can be seen in small places—-Kirkland noted that as the CDC guidelines for work changed, so did her facilities applications—and grassroots manufacturing collaborations . 


But it’s also evident in core production philosophies. Alex Pereyaslavets, a Mechatronics Engineer at design and engineering consultancy Beca, sees this in the fact that many of her clients are building resiliency factors into their technology roadmaps. Manufacturers are taking seriously the fact that this level of disruption isn’t necessarily a one-time phenomenon. The ability to shift, retool, and adjust to radically altered conditions is a competitive advantage now. 


3. You can’t talk about safety without talking about privacy


Keeping workers safe means collecting data about them. This is a double-edged sword. Data lets operations teams make informed decisions about when, who, and whether frontline workers should return to the plant. But it also means putting employees’ privacy in jeopardy. 


The manufacturers I’ve spoken with have stressed that new data means new responsibility. Exceptional circumstances are no excuse for lax data practices. 


Kirkland shared that Terex’s operations teams opened an early and ongoing dialogue with HR and IT to ensure that privacy is never compromised. “We had a lot of discussions with HR, with our health and safety leaders, and we also had data privacy teams working with us to ensure that we were not violating anybody’s privacy” 


Harms agreed. “As a VP of people, one of my first concerns was ‘who is seeing this info?’”

These are often small considerations that go a long way in protecting the people who make manufacturing happen. 


4. Sharing and community are key, or, we’re all in this together 


In the early days of social distancing, I remember hearing a single phrase over and over: 

“No one has a playbook for this.” 

True. But that doesn’t mean people weren’t doing a great job sharing their expertise and experiences in real-time. 


The manufacturers I’ve spoken were open in their generosity to others. “We knew there were going to be restrictions in place,” Mo Chalabi of Beca noted, “So we collated all of our internal documents about remote working, utilizing technology like remote assist, AR, and digital apps and published it free on our website.” 


Others took the ethos of sharing to an extreme, building open source projects from the ground up, while several large manufacturers shared ventilator SOPs to encourage the community to help them find creative solutions for scaling.  


This kind of broad-based, community-driven approach to manufacturing problems is key to keeping the industry afloat through this crisis and the next. 


5. Humans are still essential


This crisis has done little to convince the manufacturers I work with that manufacturing would be better off with fewer workers. In fact, it’s shown the opposite. 

For Harms, the proof was in the pudding. 


“We’re a robotics company, and we’ve always believed that robots compliment people, not replace them,” she began. As a testament to that, our production and manufacturing lines were the last ones out and the first ones in. I don’t know how to paint a better picture than that.” 


Kirkland echoed this sentiment. “Our team members have always been the center for us. And this has highlighted it. But this has brought about ideas for how to make them safer. It’s opened a conversation about how we use technology to make them safer. That’s our goal right now. How do we use technology to enable the human?” 


So, what’s next?

So far, we’ve learned a lot about where manufacturing is, where it’s going, and we’re it needs to go if the industry is going to stay competitive. 

If we take stock of what the teams I’ve quoted here are doing, we’re all certain to get there much fast.


Source: Natan Linder \ Forbes

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