The Power of the Pen in a Digital Age
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The Power of the Pen in a Digital Age

We’re a process manufacturer and have worked hard on involving our shop floor guys heavily in process improvements. Until recently, this was all done using the good, old-fashioned whiteboard.

The team kept regular notes on cycle times, identified and noted down quality issues, and regularly made suggestions about how to tweak both in order to improve them.

They did all this on handwritten boards. Indeed, you couldn’t walk down the line without encountering a sea of green, red and blue ink on the boards.

But then we had an edict from our European headquarters to move into the digital age. They wanted to ensure we were capturing all relevant manufacturing and production data as a group, and digital data capture offers a far more accurate and convenient system than pen and paper.

However, the effect on the shopfloor has, to put it mildly, been unenthusiastic. There’s been a discernible mood change ever since the new system was announced. I mean it’s not open mutiny, but the guys just don’t seem to be as up for process improvement as before. The spring has gone from their step and we’ve seen some signs of disengagement with data capture.

I asked some on the shopfloor why this is and they said they liked the manual methods we used to employ because they were simple to comprehend and easy to implement. They said they felt less comfortable working with digital technology because it is unfamiliar and tough to understand.

There is clearly a power to the pen and being able, quite literally, to make your mark, at least partly because manual systems are tangible and immediate. In fact, I believe even the best lean manufacturing practitioners are fans of manual systems – at Toyota, plant managers read from a hand-updated whiteboard at each station.

Having said that, as a business we simply can’t afford to stand still, and tracking and traceability are certainly improved by using digital methods.

So we face a predicament; my question is how do I stop the negative attitude among the workforce taking root without defying HQ?

Kevin Eyre of SA Partners gives the expert view…

Not so much a predicament as a dilemma, by which I mean that any path you choose will present you with a downside – a disappointed HQ or a de-motivated team. Dilemmas are matters for leaders; problems are issues for managers. You therefore face a test of your leadership, not so much of your management, as if the stakes weren’t high enough already.

I could offer you my sympathy, but you’d be better off with some options. Churchill once quipped, ‘keep your experts on tap, not on top’. I’ll provide you with some options (which you can adapt), but the decision is yours.

Option 1 – Hold firm. The gains you have made have been considerable and you have clearly brought about the engagement and the enablement of your workforce. There are a number of ways to protect this.

Firstly, appoint a small number of numerate graduates looking for an internship opportunity and have them collect, collate, analyse and report the numbers to HQ making sure that they are consistent with the workforce numbers.

Secondly, extend the role of the most personable of these graduates to see if the workforce might get interested in the use of the HQ system. If so, move towards a hybrid approach of chalk and gadgets. If not, leave it well alone.

Thirdly, increase the communication to HQ advising them of the benefits to be gained from ‘handwritten boards’. When you come under pressure, stand your ground. You may experience some negative reactions.

Option 2 – Embrace the future. You have built a reputation for progressive thinking and action. There are ways to cement this. Run an experiment in which a small part of the workforce is invited to use the HQ system following detailed training and compare the results of this experiment with the handwritten boards approach.

Ensure that there are measures of effectiveness and efficiency in evaluating the result and invite the teams to decide how the best of both worlds might be accommodated. Where there are signs of enthusiasm for the new approach, push hard for more extensive use. You may experience some negative reactions.

Option 3 – Take the agenda to HQ. Alert HQ to the threat faced by the adoption of the new system and seek their involvement in helping to overcome the obstacles faced.

Explain to the team the approach you plan to take and seek their support and involvement making clear that your advocacy of their approach may ultimately fail.

This is a complex position to hold and you might easily be accused of seeking a messy compromise. You will experience some negative reactions.

This ‘expert’ may have helped to stimulate some better ideas. That is what experts do best. What leaders do best is to assess the art of the possible while holding firm to core believes.

Which option will you choose?

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