The Strengths and Limitations of 5 Different Approaches to Digitizing Standard Work
For any job or process there is a best practice. This is known as Standard Work. Today, Standard Work is expressed digitally at the best companies and referring to instruction manually or collecting data manually introduces too much inefficiency in a world that is increasingly digitally connected.
As companies rapidly embrace digital transformation to reap the obvious benefits of initially creating data in a digital form, companies are choosing a wide variety of approaches. Some are giant projects with hopefully a big bang of improvement at the end of a long road, others are more incremental. Some are more bespoke or custom, while others leverage proven approaches that ensures their processes can be improved over time.
If the monster ERP implementations
of the 90’s taught us anything it was that being too precious about your “unique” process is very costly, and often your process shoehorned into a rigid structure simply doesn’t work at any price. The other lesson was that some types of work could never be ERP vanilla deployments as the work itself was that different. The answer, that we are now learning in the post mass production era, is – as they say – somewhere in the middle.
In the next generation Agile business, leadership is engineering these companies for speed so that they can reconfigure themselves to make a wider variety of unique products at a higher margin. Understanding Standard Work and having a way to manage it effectively in these companies is more important than ever as the speed of change and overall throughput requires work to be executed with precision. Essentially there is no slack time in the system. In the large batch world, orders were passed from ERP systems to MES systems that set up the machines and issued the work orders. What then happened on the shop floor was essentially measured based on lagging metrics of what the machines or plant produced. By contrast, in the modern, Agile firm, the execution of the work itself must be measured, as numerous opportunities for fine tuning surface during execution that allow these companies to improve processes to make more unique products at a lower cost.
Companies are now recognizing that they have to invest in technology to manage Standard Work with precision to get the most out of human effort in fast moving work environments. There are 5 approaches emerging that are being used by companies to digitize human work. These categories are:
- Form Builders
- Checklist Applications
- iBPM or Digital Process Automation (DPA) Tools
- Bench Manufacturing Systems
- Connected Worker Platforms or Digital Work Instruction Platforms
In this executive brief we address the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
What They Do: Form Builders are essentially masters of quick custom UIs for Mobile and desktops. At the core, they manipulate HTML (or web code) to produce pleasing UIs to collect data. In the modern era, these firms have adapted to be able to build screens for mobile.
When Used: They are used when a process is deemed far too custom for any solution that can be configured.
Strengths: Relatively simple screens that require custom sequencing for a bespoke or proprietary process can be configured to a very specific company requirement.
Weaknesses: Because they can be deployed quickly and can look pleasing to the eye, they give a false sense of how robust they are. Typically, these solutions have only a rudimentary understanding of data objects if they have this notion at al. This means data collected cannot easily be normalized. These approaches also have simplistic designs that don’t generally separate structures like templates, libraries, and execution functions, making them very brittle. Improvements to processes made with form builders is essentially custom work that will take as long or longer than the original effort.
What They Do: A checklist application allows a user or manager to create a list of items to then review. More evolved solutions allow the checklists to be distributed to workers who then execute them. A checklist is typically something a single user executes on his or her own.
When Used: Checklist applications allow users to create and execute checklists to inspect products, machines, facilities, or other work generally for the purpose of ensuring safety or quality.
Strengths: As they generally focus on one type of work, inspections, checklist apps can have very clean user experiences that speed adoption for these relatively simple tasks. This is a good alternative to paper checklists as they’re always with the individual on their cell phone, and are fast to click through vs. paper.
Weaknesses: A major weakness of checklist solutions is that they are not really used to execute the work itself, but rather inspect the work after the fact. Checklists typically serve the purpose of inspecting the work of others and don’t offer features like recording the timing of steps completed, collecting inline data, or collaborating with experts as this data is not required by companies for their inspections. They can be applied to “live” work processes, but suffer from “pencil whipping,” the rapid checking of every box in the checklist before or after the work is completed, as there is no validation or recording of process execution. While inspections can often be collaborative, there appear to be few, in any, vendors offering solutions that orchestrate a more comprehensive inspection process. Instead these solutions break up complex inspections into single user tasks. This results in poor virality of the solutions, meaning that they generally stay isolated to the groups within a company that acquire them.
What They Do: iBPM and Digital Process Automation (DPA) solutions are old wine in a new bottle; essentially, they are a repackaging of BPM and workflow solutions. What’s new is that they are easier to use and better able to trigger off of data, which makes them more dynamic. At the core, they are still orchestrating business processes and workflows using a toolkit to craft new flows or link existing systems together.
When Used: Traditionally, BPM was used to create business processes for scenarios that are truly custom to a business. This mainly occurred where there was no packaged solution to cover that work scenario. This is still largely true. RPA is essentially a new class of workflow designed to trigger complex steps more programmatically which is being applied to more lights out scenarios (i.e. where humans have a minimal role).
Strengths: Because they are not packaged software, iBPM and RPA are flexible solutions that can be coded and configured to apply to any business process.
Weaknesses: BPM and RPA solutions require expert configuration. Once they are configured, the processes are brittle and require reconfiguration or recoding each time you want to change the process. As an example, if there is user input required, a screen would have to be designed from scratch in a designer. As a result of these limitations, these solutions are best deployed in highly custom processes that don’t change often and must work to a very exacting sequence or leverage integrations to other systems.
What They Do: Bench Manufacturing Systems provide an execution overlay to repeat work done at a “bench” typical of electronics manufacturing. Multiple displays may be used as well as projection technology to provide detailed instruction, guidance in the form of digital overlays, and the ability to acknowledge work completed or input data.
When Used: As the name implies, these solutions are used at a bench or a workstation that is fixed and configured for a particular assembly task. To warrant this level of configuration and investment, the tasks addressed need to be highly complex and fixed for some period of time.
Strengths: Like iBPM or DPA solutions, Bench Manufacturing Systems are designed to address very specific and complex discrete manufacturing situations. They provide a flexible enough toolkit and interface to various overlay and metering technologies to allow for the customization for very complex assembly processes.
Weaknesses: As this approach is design for singularly complex discrete tasks, it is expensive to deploy and configure and therefore cannot be used widely. It also takes some time to implement as each situation requires designing the ergonomics of the task at hand to come up with a configuration strategy. Finally, this is not a mobile approach as these techniques are designed for fixed workstations that cannot be moved.
What They Do: Connected Worker Platforms allow companies to programmatically configure business processes including data input routines on a SaaS platform, and deploy these processes to work groups via native mobile applications on tablets and phones. Each action an end user takes is recorded, producing a data stream that can be analyzed to improve the process. While workers execute, they can collaborate with each other using rich media like pictures and video. They can also log issues about the process they work it to contribute to its improvement.
When Used: Connected Worker Platforms can be used to orchestrate all types of business processes from simple checklist to complex and long running processes with lots of people and systems involved. They are particularly useful for deskless workers as the use of mobile apps allows procedures to be utilized and updated in places that computers are impractical.
Strengths: Connected Worker Platforms typically have consumer-grade user interfaces to speed time to value and adoption. They function as applications without the need to custom code the flows they orchestrate. Processes can be created, updated, and redeployed by business users without the involvement of IT. These platforms also generally include robust analytics of the work being performed to quickly identify and address gaps and bottlenecks as well as simple means for extracting and integrating to the data collected.
Weaknesses: As this is an emerging category of software, that companies are applying to areas where there has traditionally been a lack of process, they are generally used for proprietary processes at these companies. However, there is a lack of standardization of industrial processes across companies, which means little pre-built content is available on these platforms.
There are multiple ways to execute standard work. The key is to pick the right approach for your company. Solutions range from highly specific approaches for orchestrating specialty processes to broader solutions capable of orchestrating a wide variety of work scenarios. As these approaches all offer different underlying technology and capabilities, and have both unique strengths and weaknesses, this guide was meant to help you choose between very different approaches.