How to keep your workforce engaged during the Ops 4.0 journey

Although more and more businesses are already riding the Industry 4.0 wave towards deeper and broader automation, many operations still require some level of human intervention—and likely will for the foreseeable future. Whether the activity involves operators in the control room of a manufacturing site, engineers supporting a variety of business processes, or customer-facing handlers in insurance, banking, travel, or other service operations, human and machine will need to work closely together to meet business objectives.

A highly engaged workforce is therefore essential to obtaining the full potential of Ops 4.0 technologies. But if the transition to the new technologies is not managed well, workers may fear that they are being replaced by machines—even though the ultimate objective is for the machines is to enable the workers to achieve higher performance.

In previous posts focusing on the Human Factor of Ops 4.0, Markus Hammer has described how companies can address the capability-building challenge and what they can do to engage their people in order to embark on a successful Ops 4.0 transformation. It is important to realize that this transformation does not just end with the implementation of the Ops 4.0 technologies—big data, advanced analytics, robotics, and the like. Implementation is only the beginning: companies then must make sure that people interacting with these technologies do so in an effective way, and keep doing so effectively into the future.

Companies can keep their workforce engaged and build a continuous-improvement engine by bearing the following four principles in mind:

1. Engage key stakeholders throughout the journey

It’s easy for businesses to make the mistake of putting a team of engineers in charge to deploy new technologies, while forgetting that there is a whole other group of people who will eventually become the technologies’ end users.

Let’s take the example of process-control automation in an industrial-manufacturing site. Often this type of technology is developed and implemented by a technical-support organization, while the main users are the operators in the control room.

For at least three reasons, it would be a mistake to not include the latter from the start of the project. First, this group often has the deepest knowledge and richest experience, which will improve the quality of the application significantly. Additionally, by giving these operators a place in the project where they can be heard, they will be less likely to resist change once deployment begins. Third, and most important, engaging employees in this way develops their capacity to contribute—not only by strengthening their motivation, but also by encouraging them to generate innovative ideas. Some will even serve as change agents, helping make sure the deployment is successful and driving future improvement.

2. Provide effective training

Black-box models might be used more and more nowadays, but if people do not have a basic understanding they are much more likely to resist to change and feel less engaged. Accordingly, as technology advances, understanding how new applications work and how they affect human tasks becomes more and more challenging—and important. Organizations should therefore invest sufficient time and resources in capability building for their people, with training journeys that are adapted for each person’s specific role and competency level. These expose the organization to external ideas, while providing a more robust and systematic structure for sharing knowledge across internal boundaries.

3. Drive the desired mind-sets and behaviors

Leaders should keep their people accountable at the right levels and keep the new technologies from becoming an excuse for lapses in mind-sets. A strong mission and vision, explicitly describing the roles and responsibilities of both human and machine, is an essential step. This will need support from an effective performance management system consisting of a short list of agreed KPIs—codified into clear performance standards and contracts—together with meeting cascades, employee coaching, and consequence management, as in traditional lean management systems. Above all, leaders must role model the behaviors, underscoring their commitment to change themselves even as they’re seeking to change others.

4. Combine the best of the human and automation worlds

Together with the World Economic Forum, a team led by Enno de Boer recently published a report on how a few ‘Lighthouse’ manufacturers lead the way in successful implementation of Industry 4.0 technologies. These companies all recognized the need to keep deep manufacturing excellence skills within their workforces, with technology serving to augment workers’ capabilities. These businesses relied on a younger generation of workers in specialized fields such as data science to upskill workers with many years of manufacturing experience.

The higher productivity (including resource productivity), lower costs, and increased customer satisfaction that Ops 4.0 technologies generate are far too valuable to risk losing because of reduced human engagement. That fate, however, is avoidable, as Enno de Boer observed: “When you talk to these workers, they are proud of this [adoption of new technology]. They finally get the tools in hand as they do in their ‘consumer life’ and become more productive.”

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