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  • Jim Gavigan

Manufacturing Wake Up Call and 6 Strategies You Need to Consider

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

I have been thinking a lot about this topic and have even written about it before, but I am not sure I have stressed what I believe enough. The issue is that we simply aren't doing enough to modernize manufacturing, especially around how we use data. We just aren't. Unfortunately, this affects the next generation workforce that we are raising, and I think that this will have a MAJOR impact on manufacturing sooner than many people think.

You know how I can tell? I have talked to a number of millennials and others over the last 2-3 years about this very subject, and it is clear to me. I recently spoke with a customer whose son is in his early 20's and working at The dad was telling the son about all of the tools that they are using in the plant, and the son was shocked at the antiquated way that they were approaching data. Even the dad admitted to me the problem, he sees it too, that the tools he uses every day are getting long in the tooth. I really see the millennial workforce as a barometer for how we are doing as an industry, and I don't like what I see and hear as a whole.

We hire these millennials into the workforce and give them the tools we have been using for the last 5, 10, or 15 years in Excel or other antiquated applications, and they look at us and think: "Really? This is the best you have?" They (and we) can literally do almost anything from the other areas of their lives with their phone. Consider this. They (and we) can:

  • Find a good meal and have it delivered

  • Buy a car

  • Find a date

  • Find a house and get a mortgage for it

  • Get instructions on how to do or make just about anything on YouTube (heck, I learned how to build my own fishing rods and golf clubs on YouTube!)

  • Book their vacations

  • Track their health

I mean, think about it. What can we not do digitally in our lives outside of work that we can't do with our smartphones? Yet, here we are in our plants, and we can't find out even the simplest of things about our machinery with our smartphone (my sincere apologies to all of you who can reasonably tell what is going on in your plant from a phone).

Yet, here we are in our plants doing lots of things the hard way, and we accept it because we are too busy to step back and build the right, smart, new tools for this incoming generation and beyond. I just don't get it. It reminds me of this GE Commercial in the "What's wrong with Owen?" series. Hey kid - here is a hammer! It is a bit of a bait and switch in that we tell these young people that we need their help, and we don't empower them to help us. We just tell them, "here, do this (as we hand them the hammer)" because it is how we learned, and we think it should be good enough. They look at us like the way Owen looked at his parents:

We bring in these young, talented people and put them on many projects and areas of the plant, and just as they start to become effective, they get promoted, moved, or they leave for a better opportunity. In many cases, no sustainable toolset is left behind to help the next young engineer who comes in behind them, and our investment is lost.

If you are in management at a manufacturing company, you should be very concerned about the next 10-15 years. If you are not, you are ignoring signs of impending struggles that you need to address starting yesterday. Baby boomers are retiring at an alarming rate, not enough Gen X'ers are in manufacturing to fill all of their roles, and millennials are moving faster in the workforce than either of the two previous generations. In 10 years, my prediction is that 85% to 90% of the entire workforce in most plants will have less than 5 years' experience in either that plant or the industry that they are working in as a whole. Think about it. Do you agree? Or, am I way off base? Leave me a comment here or on social media. I really want to hear from you. I think that we should all be deeply troubled by the next 10 years, but we can change things.

So, what do we do? Here are 6 tips that I think can help:

1. Get your young talent to understand your company's mission (your WHY as Simon Sinek would say), and help them understand how they fit in

I have talked with a number of millennials, read lots of articles on this subject, and heard a number of speeches on this very topic. I agree with Simon Sinek on this one. I believe that the number 1 reason that we struggle to retain young talent is that they just don't understand how what they are doing fits in with the greater good.

I am not sure we have had a generation more set out to change the world than the one coming of age right now. Yeah, some say that is "entitlement", and I am sure there is a fair amount of that out there. However, my experience is that these young people want to do meaningful work that makes a difference, not just to have a job and collect a nice paycheck. The boomer and Gen X workforce had much more tolerance to stay in a mediocre job that paid pretty well, even if we didn't like it a lot.

If you can give this young generation meaningful work, you can have an engaged, young workforce that is less inclined to leave.

2. Get the right people out of "firefighting" and into thinking and acting strategically

You know what my biggest challenge is as a consultant, integrator, and entrepreneur? It isn't finding talent. It isn't getting paid. It is getting people's time to sit down and think about what their digital future should look like and give us feedback on the tools that they are paying us money to build.

It seems like EVERYONE in a plant has more to do than they possibly can to just keep the lights on and the equipment running. I rarely, and I do mean rarely, run across anyone in industry who has time to sit down and think about ways to do things smarter and better. Do you have anyone in your organization who can and is doing that? I bet not.

You have to get the right people out of the fray and let them go think about what tools and solutions can make the plant better 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years down the road.

We keep hearing about machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the like, and how it will change how we do things. I agree. However, so many plants I go into are so far away from being able to even THINK about doing these types of projects, it isn’t even funny. People do it in their “spare time”. By the time they are ready, the technology has changed again, and the players are different. I truly believe that the technology available is at least 5-10 years ahead of where most plants are today.

Many companies have cut so many people, that no one has time for anything but meetings and the urgent anymore. This presents a tremendous opportunity, and, at the same time, a tremendous challenge to Industrial Insight and others like us. However, I am convinced that if you let us (or, if you have another partner in this space, insert their name here) work with 1-2 people in a plant whose main role is to build the tools of today and tomorrow, we would do some serious damage together.

3. Empower your young talent to help build these tools

You have to let these young people run. Give them a problem to solve. Teach them the nuances of your business through the process of solving the problem, but let them either use the most modern toolset in the software you have and/or, if appropriate, let them experiment with some new tools that you are considering.

As an example, I gave Ben a little project this week - figure out how to use Cortana with Power BI. I want our customers to be able to type in questions about the data they have and get answers. It was something he was interested in doing and jumped at the challenge. He started out by hooking up Power BI to his bank information, and I kept chuckling at his disgust when he would ask questions about how much he spent at Best Buy or on Pizza. He didn't really like the answers he was getting, but I thought it was rather comical.

He happened to show this question and answer session with Cortana to a customer last week (not with his bank data, fortunately, but with some of their process data) in a meeting we had with them at PI World. The customer was extremely excited and wanted him to do a couple minute video about it and to send it to them to show to a broader audience at their company. My idea was to put Ben in front of the customer next week to show the art of the possible. So, he learned a new skill, had a blast doing it, and is going to get some nice exposure in front of a great customer to show off his new expertise. Simple acts like this can go a long way - Ben learned something that will help our customers, and in turn, help us grow our business and help more customers. How can you do this with your young people? Again, you are looking to build new and sustainable tools and keep your young talent.

4. Stop using Excel for EVERYTHING

Yep, this one is hard for me. Honestly, I have heard this for a few years and kept thinking "Excel will have to be taken from me out of my cold, dead hands!"

However, I have been heavily using tools like Power BI and Tableau over the last year. Ben has been using Splunk, and we have just dabbled with some of the machine learning tools. There are so many new and better ways to look at large sets of data, and many of us still pull Excel out as the first and only pass through it. We have to be better at that.

I have spent an hour to an hour and a half with two different customers recently in showing them how to use Power BI, and they have been amazed at the time that they can save and the interactivity of the reports that they generate. These BI tools truly are amazing, and you need to look hard at them. Tableau and Power BI are the two that I continually see leading the pack.

5. Get rid of printed reports

Given that I do a lot of work in the paper industry, I say this one with much pain. However, my reasoning for saying this is that how many of you print out reports and hand them to someone else, only to be manually entered somewhere else later that day?

I have been in a bunch of plants that this is just part of the routine and accepted. Trust me, I still have my times when I want a sheet of paper in my hands, but you can't interact with that piece of paper if you have other questions about what it is telling you. Can you? I almost always look at a sheet of paper and say, "what is up with THAT?" Then, I am off pulling and filtering more data.

Well, why are you still printing reports when you do that too? Why are you still printing reports that need to then have certain parts of that data entered somewhere else? There are some really smart people around who can help automate that data transfer and give those transcribers a more important job.

Think about it the next time you hand a millennial a printed report. This is the same person that might be able to write 30 words per minute by hand but can double-thumb type 120 words per minute on a phone. They are just used to consuming things digitally, and we all have to change. I admit I haven't read a physical book in years. I have 25 or more books on my Kindle app and at least 5 more on Audible. Trust me, I used to be the guy who wanted something on paper and not on a screen to read. Now, everything is on my phone or tablet.

6. Make it where more people can be "mobile" or "remote"

If you look at manufacturing, especially certain industries, the factories tend to be in smaller towns.

We make these young people come to small towns, work long hours, and pull weekend duty to pay their dues like we did. They should be happy with that. After all, we walked 8 miles to school bare-footed, through a foot of snow, and uphill both ways just like our parents and grandparents did!

If a young person grew up in that area, or they came from a small town and are comfortable with that lifestyle, then I think this is fine. In reality, what I am seeing is that these young people, say 30 and below, are fine putting in their time for a few years, but they are then either promoted and leave the position or leave the company if they don't see the purpose in what they are doing. Then, the next crop of young talent comes in, and the same thing happens.

What I see coming is that, key talent won't stay at a manufacturing facility for 20-30 years as often anymore. Not to say that there won't be people to man the place, but management, engineering, and other key personnel will come and go at a higher velocity. Domain expertise will be tougher to groom and keep.

So, what if we build tools that allow these young people to become subject matter experts, covering multiple facilities, and be more productive than we ever thought possible, from wherever they are? This can't always be the case, as sometimes you just have to put your hands on a machine or be around it to truly understand it. But, I truly believe we can find ways to build things so that all of our young talent doesn't have to be on the ground in the battle every day. We just have to find ways to continue to leverage the investment we make in them and keep them growing and feeling like they can make a difference. I think we have to change our mindset where we can and find ways to have these really smart people work for us from wherever they want to call home.

In summary

Somehow, we have convinced many millennials that we in manufacturing are high tech and have lots of automation and neat technology in our industries. Sometimes, that is true, but we also have a lot of old machines and systems out there.

We have recruited these young people in, and we have put tools in their hands that we built and used. They look and feel clunky compared to the tools that they have grown up with in their everyday life.

To me, this is the main challenge that manufacturing should be addressing with IIoT, Digital Transformation, Machine Learning, AI, et al right now. Maybe this is the secondary challenge that IIoT will address ultimately, but this is the most pressing challenge at the moment. We need to build sustainable and scalable solutions that teach domain expertise to those that rotate in and out of facilities, yet also help those that love where they grew up stay in one place for 20-30 years. I have used the anecdote before, where a 20 something engineer and a 50 something engineer are out on the plant floor together. The 50 something one hears the machinery doesn’t sound right and tells the 20 something that they hear a problem. The 20 something replies, "all I hear is noise."

The translation tool for this kind of interaction is the tools we are helping our customers build - with data that has context on a screen at a moment's notice. If our car can email us, and Yelp or Google can help us find a great restaurant of the type we want in the price range we want with just a few clicks, why can't our machines tell us what's wrong? They can and will, but it will require time and investment. It will require that not everyone needs to be a firefighter. There are some people that need to step back and think strategically about how this will all come together. Someone will need to build, test, and validate new tools and make sure that they, in fact, provide the value as promised. Me and my company can't do that alone. You as the manufacturer very likely can't do it alone. So, how do we do this together?

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