How to move beyond risk, resilience and rigor in manufacturing – and why we need to rethink workforce skills

The 2022 World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, ended last week with no big announcements, but leaving me with a surprising sense of determination. This despite the triple challenge of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, the climate crisis and COVID-19, which linger in the markets and shape the possibilities for collaboration.

The annual event, known for bringing together high-level leaders from the public and private sectors, further illustrates what leaders must do in times of crisis: lead, inspire and persevere. For manufacturers, this means building a stronger partnership between workers and managers to build both innovation and resilience. The main tool to achieve this, surprisingly, is not simply to use advanced technology, but to build trust through technologies that empower.

The manufacturing sector has weathered each of these crises surprisingly well. Supply chains haven’t completely collapsed, but long-term effects are happening if we don’t transform them, sustainability actions are being implemented even in asset-heavy industries, and COVID vaccine production -19 and medical supplies are strengthening, proving the value of several key public-private partnerships.

My role at Davos this year was to chart the future of manufacturing, with a particular focus on frontline industrial workers. I attended several Platform sessions to shape the future of advanced manufacturing and value chains. Platform partners include the world’s top 1000 companies, developing solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. We are a growing community of over 200 organizations from over 22 industry sectors, governments, academic institutions and civil society. Two of the companies I co-founded, frontline operations platform Tulip, and Formlabs, the pioneer and industry leader in professional desktop 3D printing, are active members.

Of these activities, I am particularly excited about our work at The Augmented Workforce Initiative. The key question we try to answer is: how can companies and governments expand the use of technology to augment, empower and develop the factory workforce? The short answer is that it can be best accomplished using technologies that augment the worker, not technologies that simply automate a process for greater efficiency.

In Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, my co-author Trond Arne Undheim and I develop a new management framework for this important challenge. Lean is a concept or way of thinking that focuses on eliminating waste and streamlining processes to save time, space, materials, and money. For years, we have sought to do this through the efficiency of machines. However, it didn’t work out so well, because the machines aren’t innovating (yet). Until then, executives need a management framework that prioritizes humans over machines. When you empower your frontline employees, you invest in their growth, productivity and loyalty. The increased efficiency of your machines is only a side effect.

Lean augmented management relies on a set of distinct human traits (a hacking mentality), organizational enablement (tools, techniques, technologies), a leadership mindset (augment, decentralize, and empower), and systems awareness (understand and respect all levels of the system). These traits and functions are not given, and as surely as they appeared, each will continue to change. However, one thing is certain: the operators (rather than the executives) are at the center of the organization, building new Augmented Lean practices.

Beyond top-down risk, resilience and rigor

Organizations of the past were top-down and doubled down on rigor as a means to achieve efficiency and scale. Manufacturing already requires taking a reasonable level of risk (making estimates about future demand), resilience (as global events occur or customer attitudes change), and rigor (sticking to a strategy even if surprises occur). All of this worked well (for executives and bottom line) in past industrial eras, but never worked well for the workforce or for society. The way forward, however, is one where close cooperation between staff and the management team ensures alignment.

The supply chains of the future will be both simpler, shorter and simultaneously more complex and diverse, and will have to combine just-in-time and just-in-case as a matter of strategy. Factories of the future may not be so much places as spheres of influence and systems of engagement. The frontline workforce of the future will be fluid, ever-changing, and highly skilled without the luxury of ever leaving the site just to “learn.” If you don’t learn, you die.

This cannot be achieved without planning, without digital systems that can adapt in no time and without skilled workers to meet all the challenges the world throws at them. Retraining can’t be a chore, it should be fun. How to achieve it? Using technologies, management frameworks, and incentives that augment the workforce, building their strengths organically, naturally, and daily. The managers of tomorrow will not require diplomas but skills. These skills cannot be developed during expensive off-site activities, during people’s spare time, or during years of schooling.

Skills evolve through learning with your work reality and through behavioral triggers that build skilled abilities and know-how. Methods will change, but knowing distinct trades and thinking three steps ahead will be more important than ever.

We may be entering an era of advanced manufacturing, but the way to implement it is to squeeze in as much simplicity as possible. The work to be done should be simple. Instructions should be just in time, tailored to the worker on a particular shift. The workshop should be ergonomically designed and allow hybrid workers to connect remotely, should allow small and medium enterprises to contribute seamlessly as all interfaces are standardized and should require as little forced management as possible. Overall, the confidence we instill in our production process will allow us to remain flexible as things change. The real technological progress lies in fluidity, not in maintaining an outdated rigor. Why? Because the future is far from fixed and the risk already comes with the territory. Augmented Lean is a powerful way to go in this direction.

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