Manufacturing Needs a Digital Revamping

During the pandemic, many manufacturers have ramped up automation technology, but there is more to the manufacturing revamp than meets the eye.

Rob Spiegel

September 1, 2020

7 Min Read
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Bureau of Labor Statistics

As manufacturers navigate COVID-19-related disruption, many are introducing advanced manufacturing tools. The deployment of digital tools alters the nature of manufacturing, so companies are forced to take up the task of reskilling their employees. Effective reskilling is critical for a successful transformation to a digital plant. A big part of conducting the reskilling effectively is preparing the analog workforce for a digital world.

Vanessa Akhtar, principal at Kotter, a change-management firm, explained the principles that best guide manufacturers as they prepare their workers for a transformed work environment:

  • Arm employees with the right tools so they can stay ahead of the automation curve

  • Reskill backward by starting with the end goal in mind. Then leverage the power the workers already have

  • Invest in upskilling workers to meet immediate needs, taking into consideration the longer-term investments that may be required

  • Communicate change openly and honestly, using ongoing employee education to engage with workers and further their talents

  • Address and bridge generational gaps, driving cultural shifts towards opportunity-seeking mindsets

One of the major challenges in preparing for a digital revamp is to get the new staffing right. Typically, this involves a mix of hiring the skillsets you need and retraining existing workers to a new set of skills. “Reskilling is often a matter of both retraining and hiring. In terms of reskilling, there’s almost always more commitment and untapped potential within the current workforce than leaders realize,” Vanessa Akhtar, principal at Kotter, a change-management firm, told Design News.

One of the advantages of up-leveling the skillset of existing workers is that you get a jump on building a positive cohesive culture. “There’s huge power in leveraging the people who already have a stake in the company’s success and longevity—and they’re worth investing in,” said Akhtar. “At the same time, leaders must align their hiring and recruiting strategies to the skills they anticipate needing in the future.”

Managing the Upside-Down Shift in Workplace Culture

Akhtar emphasizes the need to prepare the plant’s workforce for the changes so the skills are in place when the new technology is deployed. “Digital transformation can cause a lot of anxiety for employees. There’s a need to learn new tools and new skills, and often shift job roles and expectations—creating a whole lot of uncertainty for people,” said Akhtar. “If you wait until after the tool is deployed to reskill all employees, it’s going to cause even more anxiety, because people are going to feel the pressure of learning a new tool while still trying to execute their job.”

Another important facet of the transformation is managing the varied needs of the different generations of the workers. “Reskilling the workforce is about bringing along tenured, experienced employees and being thoughtful about the next generation,” said Akhtar. “Both are going to be vital for organizations that want to win today and in the future.”

We conducted an in-depth interview with Akhtar on the process of reskilling a plant for its digital future:

Design News: In reskilling workers, does that also mean changing the culture of the organization?

Vanessa Akhtar: Yes. Business leaders should focus on more than the “hard skills” when reskilling employees. We know the world is more complex and more uncertain than ever before. While there are certain needs today when it comes to creating a more digitally adept workforce, we also know that the world is going to continue to keep changing on us. Today’s investments in reskilling will pay dividends if leaders can focus on building change capabilities—not just capabilities focused on the digital tools of the present. This switch in thinking will allow organizations to adapt more quickly when the next market shift, technology innovation, global pandemic, or some other disruption hits.

And, it’s not just about frontline workers. If you think about a manufacturing line, you need those on the shop floor to work differently, managers and supervisors need to lead their teams differently, and senior leaders need to set an environment and strategy that will allow for adaptability as the world continues to change.

Design News: What comes first the chicken or the egg? Should companies deploy new digital tools and then retrain? Or retrain in advance of new digital tools?

Vanessa Akhtar: You don’t necessarily need to train everyone up front on the new digital tools, but you want to pull in employees who are closest to the work early on. Get insights from them when you’re vetting potential digital tools, so you know you’re choosing something that meets employee and customer needs and helps to achieve key business objectives. Get some influential people onboard and upskilled early, so they can help train their peers and encourage adoption. And then continue to provide support throughout the initial deployment, and beyond.   

Design News: Is it important to get buy-in on the reskilling process? Are there techniques that are effective in getting effective buy-in?

Vanessa Akhtar: It’s critical to get buy-in on the reskilling process. As with anything that requires people to change behaviors, you have to bring them along on that journey. Getting buy-in early on will help speed up adoption, because you will face less of the resistance that is common in any change initiative. No one likes feeling that change is being done to them, rather than with them.

There are a few key strategies to keep in mind when building buy-in. Because of how our brains and bodies are hardwired, we’re constantly on the lookout for threats. When we spot these threats, we have a typical survival response, triggering fight, flight, or freeze. Framing the reskilling process as a burning platform is only going to exacerbate this sense. Instead, clearly articulate the change effort as an opportunity. Help people understand why it’s important—beyond just catching up to competitors or the marketplace. How will this tool move the organization forward? How will it benefit employees, customers, the community? What is possible if this tool is successfully implemented?

As you move throughout the reskilling process, get many more diverse groups of people involved than you typically would, and tap into the power of informal networks. You will never get everyone bought in right from the beginning, so focus your initial efforts where the energy is so you can start to gain some traction early. Communicate transparently and regularly, speaking to both the head and the heart as you do so. And share wins, big and small, so people can see proof points that will help build momentum.

Design News: Can you teach old dogs new tricks? Does reskilling the workforce involve shifting to a new generation of workers?

Vanessa Akhtar: Veteran employees have deep historical knowledge, and likely have the best sense of where the problems are. They can help you identify the biggest opportunities with new digital tools, and they will likely raise concerns early on that can help you avoid landmines—whether that has to do with the digital tools being implemented, or the mindset of the workforce, or the process for reskilling employees. We’ve seen over and over again in our work, when veteran employees are given the chance to play a role, they step up in ways many didn’t envision. Too often, though, they aren’t even asked.

On the other hand, there is a whole new generation of employees entering the workforce. This generation, typically, is more comfortable with technology. Use that to your advantage to help accelerate the adoption of new tools. Veteran employees and younger employees can provide mentorship to each other, to create a workforce that has a deep understanding of the business, its customers, and how to integrate digital tools most effectively into how they work.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.


About the Author(s)

Rob Spiegel

Rob Spiegel serves as a senior editor for Design News. He started with Design News in 2002 as a freelancer and hired on full-time in 2011. He covers automation, manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, AI, and more.

Prior to Design News, he worked as a senior editor for Electronic News and Ecommerce Business. He has contributed to a wide range of industrial technology publications, including Automation World, Supply Chain Management Review, and Logistics Management. He is the author of six books.

Before covering technology, Rob spent 10 years as publisher and owner of Chile Pepper Magazine, a national consumer food publication.

As well as writing for Design News, Rob also participates in IME shows, webinars, and ebooks.

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