Why Prioritizing Tech Over People Won’t Solve Productivity Woes

Many will find that automation alone is not the silver bullet to their productivity problems.

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With all the buzz around automation, it’s no surprise so many manufacturers are jumping in with both feet. Looking to offset the high costs of labor, supplies, and supply chain challenges, anything that promises to do the work better, faster and cheaper seems like a no-brainer.

Except many will find that automation alone is not the silver bullet to their productivity problems, especially when it comes at the cost of safety, quality, reputation and liability. As Boeing has learned the hard way, the most advanced factories in the world won’t solve anything if you ignore the people and culture inside the organization. It appears Boeing actively cultivated a toxic environment where employees were afraid to speak up about manufacturing issues that put lives at risk, resulting in defects that made national headlines.

But Boeing isn’t alone. The meatpacking industry has invested billions of dollars in automation, yet most of the big producers have still seen profit margins shrink and losses topping half-a-billion dollars. Stanley Black & Decker’s highly publicized Texas tool facility barely lasted six years before its roboticized Craftsman factory fizzled out.

If Automation Isn’t the Answer, What Is?

You must invest in people, too. After all, technology only works if there are people to implement, operate and maintain it. That means an investment in people is, by proxy, an investment in the success of the technology itself. In fact, fixing your culture can improve productivity as much, if not more, than automation, with happy employees shown to increase productivity by up to 31 percent. 

So, how can companies find the right balance between people and tech? 

First, set the right tone with new automation. Many employees fear losing their jobs to technology, leading to passive resistance, which is a recipe for failure. To combat this knee-jerk reaction, consider a no-layoff policy along with a plan to retrain or reassign staff to value-add areas where you can’t count on tech to do the job, like supervisory or customer service positions. Cross train employees to work in various roles, and slow down hiring until you nail down a strategy for existing talent. 

Create a strong communications plan that fosters trust and transparency to get employees on-board with the implementation. Ask front-line staff for their input and expertise on production tasks and any potential hurdles they see with the new technology. Then, explain how the planned implementation will make their work safer, healthier, less taxing and provide a better quality of life outside the plant. 

Prioritize leadership development and transparency. Train supervisors to value employee feedback. Provide managers with the autonomy to resolve any issue and create a space for them to feel safe reporting up the chain those that require higher-level support. Don’t tolerate “bad apples” who create a negative work environment that drags down overall morale, and make recognition and expressing gratitude a part of everyday operations. 

While automation can play a key role in improving productivity, it won’t work without the trust, engagement and investment of the people that make it run smoothly. 

Sometimes it can be hard to spot people and culture issues when you’re immersed in them every day. Before jumping feet first into a tech solution, consider partnering with outside experts who can bring a neutral, third-party perspective to help identify people issues impacting productivity, and formulate a strategic plan for improvement. 

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