Ops 4.0—The Human Factor: The power of the digital capability center

For many staff—front line employees and managers alike—the transition to Ops 4.0 may be the most significant change in working practices they have experienced in their careers. In earlier episodes of this series, we’ve discussed the need for companies to take a systematic approach to prepare their people for work in the era of digitally-enabled operations.

One vital part of any capability-building program is hands-on experience of new tools and technologies. When people have the chance to actively participate in their learning—not just seeing and hearing, but also doing—they learn faster, understand more thoroughly, and remember more. The challenge for companies is to find a way to give their people that hands-on experience without disrupting or compromising ongoing operations.

In our experience, one of the most powerful and versatile tools for operations capability building is a dedicated experiential learning environment. These facilities, variously known as “model factories” or more recently as “digital capability centers,” are designed to simulate an organization’s operations at a much smaller scale, using real equipment, tools and software where possible.

A digital capability center offers a number of advantages over other learning environments. It is highly flexible, letting users change processes, reconfigure layouts, or introduce new tools, and immediately see the impact on performance. It is realistic, so that users can see how the new approaches they learn about can apply to the actual operational environment. And it is safe, so users feel free to experiment and make mistakes without affecting production.

Capability centers can be used at multiple points in an Ops 4.0 transformation:

  • Before the start, to educate, inform and inspire the company’s senior leaders about how new approaches work, and they impact they can have
  • During the exploration and design phase, to allow change leaders and operations staff to experiment with new tools and techniques
  • During early implementation, to give front line staff an insight into new processes
  • As the transformation scales up and rolls out, to share experience and build the capabilities of people from different parts of the organization

For a global automotive parts manufacturer, a digital capability center proved critical in helping the senior leadership team identify the best way to start a digital journey. By letting the team experience how Ops 4.0 builds on lean fundamentals for broad and lasting impact, the capability-center visit speeded the company’s transformation momentum. With a deeper understanding of digital manufacturing, the team began launching a transformation roadmap including selecting technologies for pilot projects.

A global pharmaceutical manufacturer instead used a digital capability center to explore technology alternatives during the design stage of its Ops 4.0 transformation, which focused on what the quality lab of the future could look like, and which technologies they should consider. Senior quality and IT executives experimented with a variety of digital use cases, including augmented reality, digital standard work, and digital performance management. Surprised by the accessibility of many of the technologies, the team realized that deploying them in the near term could substantially shorten the transformation’s planned timelines.

Building a capability center need not be a daunting process. Some organizations go to considerable lengths to make facilities that accurately reflect their wider operations, for example by building mini production lines that use the same machines they deploy elsewhere. Not every center needs to be so elaborate, however: a portable “model factory in a box” can use miniaturized production equipment, and be set up almost anywhere.

Nor it is necessary to make all the investment upfront. Many companies start by making using generic capability-center facilities developed by academic institutions or independent training providers. The inherent flexibility of the capability-center concept means it is usually possible to configure these to represent the types of process, or operational challenge, each organization seeks to address. For some, this approach provides all they need. But a growing number of companies find the capability-center approach so useful that they build their own, both to provide additional capacity and a more tailored learning environment.

Our thanks to Pete Kimball for his contributions to this post.

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