My eight-year-old heard about the fantastic wave of artificial intelligence and robotics that will shortly become standard. His first wish (should he be given one) was that he wants a robot to do his homework, but not play soccer with his buddies because he does that very well. His understanding may be naïve, but it is indicative of the potential of the technological revolution that is underway. We are already deciding what kinds of tasks and jobs the new technologies can do in our manufacturing operations. What we don’t know is how easy that will be.
Let’s not fool ourselves with a non-realistic future. The reality of today, and what will be the reality of tomorrow, is that our people are going to be the ones to make a difference in our factories. The urgent matter now is how to get our workforce best prepared for the massive push for robotization and automation in the various phases of the supply chain.
New technologies will undoubtedly make some positions redundant within every supply chain. It’s difficult to predict the impact of the redundancy, but understanding how the new technologies will dramatically transform the remaining jobs is even more difficult. Manufacturing leaders are responsible for making the technological transition as smooth and healthy as possible and ensuring the workforce can maximize the benefits of smart digitalization.
What will these deep changes look like? Let’s think of some of the effects of automation so we can get ready.
- Artificial intelligence will take over most adjustment work and will deliver more precision to the line operator based on data. It will make the informed shop-floor decisions for which we currently rely on humans.
- Automation could eliminate many basic jobs but also a lot of simple bureaucratic tasks and we will still need shop-floor capabilities in our people to interpret the data that will become available.
- Extremely repetitive jobs will be replaced by automation and thus first-line managers and Shift Supervisors will have a completely different workforce profile to lead and manage.
An essential part of any new technology is to have the users well prepared to maximize the value that we are investing and to generate a safe environment to embrace the “new normal”. In our view, a truly successful Performance System is a strong capability-building process for people as opposed to a pure management-level methodology. It delivers a standard way of doing the work while also pushing all individuals into new tasks, responsibilities, and ways of interacting across the traditional functions/silos. To make this happen in a sound way you need a structured and rigorous approach to developing capabilities of the complete workforce. Relying solely on new talent to arrive in your facility and deliver incredible results will continue to be challenging, if not impossible for most manufacturers.
Again, let’s be realistic – transforming our line operators into IT engineers is not going to happen. What we must do is train our shop-floor employees to be better prepared to interact with AI and automated lines; to smartly use the information in their hands so that they remain a key value-adding element in the operations. This is something we can do and we can do it in a relatively simple way.
The training process cannot be opportunistic, nor a one-off effort. It must be part of our daily management system or simply the way we do business. A sustainable Lean Performance System will do this for your organization. Determine the training needs of your shop-floor in this brave new world, then develop the tools and people that will deliver education in an ongoing basis. Build a culture that is adaptive to continued innovation so that your workforce is capable prepared for the next curve in the road. There is always a next curve.
Responsible leadership cannot dream about homework being magically done. Now is the time to get our hands on the right processes and tools to prepare our shop-floor for the agility required for success.