Beyond COVID-19: Drive Innovation with Technology and Agile Manufacturing

Worker checking machine in manufacturing environment

Nearly every manufacturer has been affected by COVID-19. Companies continue to face uncertain challenges to industrial operations as they address the immediate impact and change in demand for products, while ensuring the safety of employees. We’ve witnessed drastic shifts in the market and global economy. 

As industries, particularly within manufacturing, grapple with these changes and switch gears to adjust to the “new normal,” it's important to have the long view in mind. Business decisions made in response to the current crisis must be agile and adaptable for the next crisis. Trying to get back to business as usual simply won't work. 

Why Should You Embrace Agile Methodologies?

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, many companies are embracing agile methodologies because of COVID-19. 

“When the emergency fades, people typically return to traditional command-and-control innovation until the next crisis arises, when they must reinvent agile approaches all over again…[companies must] create more agile teams charged with generating innovations. Begin spreading the principles of agile throughout the organization, even to the parts of it that must remain bureaucratic,” the article mentions.

An agile business system can help companies create the innovation needed to survive these uncertain times, and beyond. 

As a manufacturer looking to restart or as you assess operations in a post-COVID-19 world, what does this mean for your organization? An important takeaway here is that you need to embrace agile methodologies and business systems, regardless of the current crisis. You must engage with the right personnel, test, learn and adapt. Companies that do not focus on innovation and fail to adapt will be left behind. 

What happens when you don’t adjust to change? Your operations will be challenged again. And in the next looming crisis, leadership will be responsible for the missed orders, shutdowns and pending layoffs. It’s imperative that organizations adapt and adopt technology in order to be more resilient. 

The First Step to Being Agile: Visibility

Projects that employ agile management methodologies are six times more likely to succeed than non-agile projects according to an article in IndustryWeek. Companies that employ agile teams claim to be more productive, reduce project risk and adapt to changing priorities. 

Traditional methodologies like Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen are well known for leading to ongoing and measured change; however, if you adopt agile methodologies, you are more likely to see rapid innovation. 

How do you have a more agile supply chain? Through digital transformation and adopting modern technology.     

There are still a number of companies that have not adopted digital transformation initiatives and rely on paper-based processes. These companies are faced with inaccurate data captured and delayed access to information – affecting critical business decisions. Real-time visibility into human and machine data are vital to the success of your manufacturing operations. And this is increasingly important in a post-COVID-19 world. 

For example, with the unexpected change in demand and supply chain pressures that are created in crises, the adherence to production schedules is extremely important. It’s not that it wasn’t important before, but management requires more visibility into how operations are being executed. How can teams do more with less, remotely and in a shorter amount of time? Managers need time to react or assign resources to make sure they are able to meet demand. With an agile network that is consistently receiving updated information, it shortens lead time and provides visibility and control over the movement of goods and services.            

How to Make Agile Decisions on the Factory Floor

Agile and flexible manufacturing require digital connected technology to quickly respond to changing market demands and access to data to make critical decisions. Because manufacturing systems can often be complex, this requires an integration of disparate systems across operations. Particularly during COVID-19, we’ve witnessed the need to have insights across the factory floor. 

As a plant manager that can no longer walk around the factory floor, how do you remotely enable your team to make agile decisions on the shop floor?  

1. Ensure safety and compliance – With increased safety precautions on the shop floor, companies are adopting new employee health and safety measures, like implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) that integrate safety checks within employees’ workflows. Employees can be reminded to wash their hands or put on the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout their shift.

As a manager, you likely can no longer walk as freely around the factory floor to ensure worker compliance. But, you can use connected worker technology to gather worker data and tap into analytics dashboards to validate and analyze compliance with safety checks in real-time, or spot any deviations that need to be addressed early on.

2. Enable your team to make better decisions – Provide your team with the right information and data so they can make better decisions. In traditional environments, frontline workers often aren't able to see when they are behind on production. They’d typically wait for their manager to notify them that they’re behind and ask them to speed up. 

With connected worker technology, frontline workers can see where they are in the overall execution of work. If they notice they’re behind, they can make proactive decisions to make up for the time. Workers are able to manage themselves, versus waiting for their manager to tell them what to do. Managers have complete visibility into work being executed, who completed the job, when they completed the job and how long it took.

3. Manage issues remotely – Plant managers can manage issues remotely and reduce reaction time when problems arise. Pre-COVID-19, when a worker would run into an issue, they could rope in the engineering team on-site to have them take a look at the issue. Now that these engineers are likely to be remote or unable to travel as freely due to social distancing measures, how do workers pull them in? With connected worker technology, a worker can notify the appropriate team members and collaborate with one another, ask questions and resolve issues using the chat functionality – all while remote.

At this point in time you need to ask yourself, how can you pivot given the current disruption and prepare for what comes next? Speed, flexibility, agility, transparency and access to data are critical. As we’ve seen with a number of our clients, companies that adopt connected worker technology have been more resilient during these challenging times.      

Manufacturers need tools to help their workers collaborate and stay connected across teams and locations, particularly as physically distancing and stricter employee safety measures are put in place. Digital collaboration tools will play a critical role enabling workers to adapt to rapidly changing situations, while still being able to do their jobs better and optimize processes along the way.

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