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Transforming a Factory During the 'Big Quit'

By Jeff Chu, Industry Week

Operations leaders today, now more than ever, are facing pressures to do more with less. It seems like each refresh of the news feed presents another data point around labor shortages, whether from employee resignations or employees sidelined due to illness. Further, plant managers are being asked to increase output to meet market demand—many hearing from their sales teams, “If we can make it, we can sell it.” Historically, a common lever was to add labor to help tackle the new work. Now, plant managers are turning their project focus to other means to do more with less. Two examples that are top of mind are:

  • Using robotics to increase production while maintaining the same headcount levels

  • Implementing “connected factory” solutions like OEE dashboards or real-time production monitoring to uncover inefficiencies in their existing capacity.

In fact, Reuters recently reported that almost 40,000 robots joined the North American workforce in 2021, which represents growth fueled by record demand and pandemic-fueled labor shortages. As one can imagine, onboarding all these robots takes some effort by the teams tasked with carrying out each deployment.

In general, once strategic plans have been defined, the next challenge is a lack of internal resources to carry out the projects. The biggest hurdle in completing factory transformation initiatives today is not justifying the ROI, but rather the scarcity of engineering time and other organizational factors that threaten execution.

To increase the likelihood of success, plant managers will benefit from thinking through the challenges ahead of time and spreading responsibility across multiple working groups.

Challenges Transformation projects like robotics or connected factories add stress to organizations in a multitude of ways. Time constraints and competing priorities must be acknowledged, especially when asking the already stretched-thin engineering ranks to take on more while fighting the day-to-day fires. New projects may also approach the limits of a team’s expertise, especially among first-time adopters who have not yet developed the in-house know-how. Further, but often overlooked, is factory transformation initiatives often demand historically siloed working groups to collaborate—this is especially true in projects where stakeholders from IT, OT and operations must converge to ensure the interdependencies of new technology will mesh well. Navigating these challenges—all within the broader context of labor shortages that are pressuring the site as a whole—can be a lot to ask of the group charged with carrying out a strategic project.

Actions These five leadership choices have been observed to help limit additional strain on already busy teams and increase likelihood of success in completing projects.

1. Scope projects cross-functionally and in an open-minded forum. Forming a cross-functional working team early in the process gives all parties an opportunity to become familiar collaborating and helps ensure all parties feel heard. Another key benefit, however, is that collaboration early helps improve and de-risk the scope. Hosting a 2-hour group whiteboard session can do wonders for uncovering nuances in processes and bringing tacit knowledge to light. This often results in cost savings and less headaches down the road.

2. Distribute project ownership to the group.Drafting the scope collaboratively lowers the threat that potential change (or more work) is being forced upon someone unknowingly. Team members brought in early will likely feel more inclined to take ownership of a facet of the project execution. This helps spread the workload and not overburden one individual to own the execution after it is defined.

3. Focus on identifying at least one quick win to start. While strategic initiatives can and should dream big, most success starts small. Leaders should focus the group on identifying an initial project to deliver a quick win. For robotics, picking an application that delivers immediate value, even if the ROI may be lower relative to other ideas, can help build momentum and win over organizational doubters. For digital projects, prioritizing a small scope of work like connecting to one machine as a pilot can help teams climb the learning curve before tying in the whole facility. 4. Discuss plans for future scalability and interdependencies up front. While it may seem intuitive to think about projects in both the “here and now” and in the context of future production, group brainstorming can sometimes hone in on ideas without testing the limits of their applicability. While facilitating a whiteboard session, it is critical to discuss other strategic choices on the organization’s radar that may have implications linked to the project at hand.

5. Stay engaged from start to finish. Management participation from the beginning not only non-verbally communicates to the organization that the strategic initiatives are important and additional efforts are valued, but that it is OK to learn as you go. As teams and organizations go through this process for the first time, not everyone will have all the answers. But ramping up the learning curve is part of the value for all.

Ultimately, embarking on factory transformation initiatives in already resource-constrained environments can seem daunting. However, thoughtful leadership from the beginning helps set the tone and establish a team-first mentality as organizations collectively drive toward executing ambitious plans. Like any transformation project, it is imperative to be cognizant of the human element for how jobs may change—not just when the projects conclude, but also on the journey to get there.


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