Manufacturing companies stuck in the reactive stage and unable to move forward in the six-phase journey towards becoming leading organizations are dealing with a number of challenges. Some of the most common challenges in manufacturing including: communication breakdowns, siloed workforces, a growing skills gap, inflexible tools and complacent leadership, are having a negative impact on companies’ abilities to continuously improve.
As many manufacturing companies look to move ahead into the fourth industrial revolution, they are having to confront these challenges and find ways to move forward. I have worked with several manufacturing companies over the years helping them develop innovative solutions to the following challenges.
In the midst of one of the tightest labor markets there are currently more positions needing to be filled than the amount of people looking to fill them. Employers are facing a new challenge of a growing skills gap with not enough prospective employees having the skills necessary for the jobs. A 2018 Deloitte study on challenges within manufacturing found that the skills gap may leave about 2.4 million positions unfilled by 2028.
There is a need for a shifting skill set in manufacturing due to the introduction of advanced technology and the automation of some processes. Many of the workers have decades of experience performing tasks a certain way and are naturally resistant to changing how the work is done. Additionally, a significant amount of the manufacturing workforce is nearing retirement age.
While the older generation of workers is gearing up to retire, one of the most serious recruiting challenges the Deloitte study found was that younger workers have a largely negative perception of the manufacturing industry.
Addressing the skills gap is one of the most challenging issues companies are facing. Companies need employees with technical skills, but also with an interest in continuously learning to keep up with the fast-paced environment of evolving technology. According to the Deloitte study, the types of skills needed within manufacturing are constantly changing making it increasingly difficult for the workforce to keep up.
In my work with manufacturing companies, I’ve noticed the most successful employees are knowledge-based workers who are both close to the manufacturing processes, possessing those vocational skills, and equally appreciative of continuously improving the business. These folks are increasingly reliant on a digital tool chain to accomplish these goals.
Manufacturing companies typically have many plants located throughout the country and while they may be unified by company name and brand, they remain very siloed in how they operate. These silos have allowed for localized definition of standards, vocabulary and best practices. While this allows employees to work efficiently within their own plant, it is not effective for leveraging best practices across an organization.
There are many reasons why silos may exist throughout an organization including a lack of trust or transparency, a disconnect or misunderstanding of company goals, a lack of incentive to work together, and a lack of ownership for overall success, among many others. Silos can lead to communication breakdowns as it becomes difficult to communicate lessons learned company-wide which can lead to duplicate work, inefficiencies, and increased costs that have a negative impact on the industry.
In a Deloitte report examining the fourth industrial revolution, one-third of leaders observed for the study ranked silos as one the top three challenges they faced while preparing for the fourth industrial revolution. The study, released earlier this year, found that silos can deter communication and collaboration which can ultimately hurt both the internal experience for workers as well as the customer experience.
Though it is important to break down those organizational silos and barriers within manufacturing companies, in order to obtain business agility, it is equally important to break down barriers up and down the supply chain. While this may be difficult, significant agility can be realized by standardizing on reporting KPI’s, process and tools.
Regardless of whether you work for a small, medium-sized or large manufacturing company, all of these companies need to upgrade and standardize their digital infrastructure to better share and interpret information. I’ve found that this is where traditional tools, like Excel and Microsoft Access, struggle to meet the needs of detailed manufacturing processes.
These traditional tools struggle to keep up with the pace of change that is required to realize integrated work environments. I’ve found the pain manifests in fiscal, quarterly and often month-end reporting exercises. This results in a small team of analysts works overtime for days compiling, normalizing, and reporting on data across multiple sites, departments and business units.
The most successful firms are those that utilize cloud-based platforms that are highly configurable, customizable to support integrations with other sources of truth (or the ‘inflexible’ systems of record) and easy to implement and support.
In a study assessing more than 2,000 C-suite executives across 19 countries for their annual Readiness Report, Deloitte found that many of these executives are shying away from bold technology investments needed to drive innovation. Instead, they are sticking with the status quo as it remains easier for companies to try to stay the same than to be proactive and innovative.
According to the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), in the last two decades while many manufacturing companies have taken steps towards continuous improvement, leveraging Kaizen, the most successful companies have regular continuous improvement plans implemented. They do this by ensuring visibility into important metrics, eliminating process variation and fostering human development. These successful companies make a priority to frequently review numbers, processes and behaviors, according to AME.
Those transformational companies that can fight off complacency recognize that the answer goes beyond technology. Great leadership is just as important as having the right tools when approaching the continuous improvement of people, processes, products, and services. Great people demand support to implement their ideas, which may often involve implementing tools and systems that enable a level of flexibility not afforded by legacy systems.
Top managers not supported by the right technology will inevitably leave for more forward-thinking companies that prioritize and invest in providing the tools and systems to optimize work. While technology isn’t everything, it does make a significant impact in scaling the lessons learned, best practices and processes inherent to high performing teams.