Let me tell you a story.
There’s a manufacturing plant, and in that plant there is a control room. In this control room you’ll find monitors designed to let employees monitor production and see problems immediately.
On these monitors, there is an alert. This alert indicates there is a problem on one of the production lines. It’s supposed to help the employee address the problem.
This alert has been flashing for not minutes, not hours, not days, but weeks. Truth be told, no one knows how long the alert has been there. It’s been so long that everyone just overlooks it shift after shift.
This is a true story we heard from one of our partners. And my hunch is that it’s a common story that happens in lots of manufacturing contexts—maybe even yours.
Why does this happen? Is it the fault of the managers working in the control room?
That’s not where I would point the finger.
Instead, I’d place the responsibility on the software developers who created the technology that delivered the alert. That’s because the alert failed to accomplish its job, when measured in terms of effectiveness for the users.
This story is a vivid reminder that the technology innovation that happens in any manufacturing context must maintain a user focus if it is to be truly successful.
With this story in mind, here are four keys that will ensure your manufacturing innovation initiative actually works for users.
Make It Clear
User-focused innovation should be clear. The system should be intuitive so that users get how to use it quickly, and so that they can figure out how to do what they need to do wherever they are in the system. This needs to be true whether they use the system every day, or whether it’s something they check on an occasional basis.
It doesn’t matter how innovative your manufacturing facility is if your employees can’t use the innovations correctly. So a focus on user experience is vital for everything from software to machine controls to video screens. Each part of your tech stack needs to help employees know what to do and when to do it.
Make It Timely
Clear instructions are great, but they’re of little value if they don’t come at the right time. So you need to sure your manufacturing technology issues timely information.
Of course, this means that alerts like the ones in the story above should appear when they need to be addressed. All of us are used to putting off alerts to update our smartphone software or web plugins, so we’re used to ignoring alerts that aren’t timely. The same thing will happen in a manufacturing context. Basically, employees will choose to deal with alerts manually, instead of trusting that the system is generating timely information.
This also has to do with the way you handle and share important data collected in your plant. Can it be analyzed in real time? Or do employees have to wait for a nightly or weekly or even less frequent integration? Making data timely is a vital part of a successful manufacturing innovation project.
Make It Meaningful
It’s not enough to give your employees information that is clear and timely. The information also needs to be meaningful. In other words, if an employee needs to take action, you need to show them why they need to take action. If an employee needs to notify a manager, that employee had better understand why notification is the most important step he or she can take.
So how do you do this? You ensure that information is specific enough to mean something, and you also make sure that information is specific enough to mean something. “The machine needs attention” isn’t good enough. Provide a part number. Explain the consequence of inattention. Make sure that your system is telling users what data or alerts mean, so they can respond with appropriate urgency.
Make It Actionable
When you give employees information that is clear, timely, and meaningful, then they are prepared to act. So it’s important that you let them know when they should act.
With alerts, this is easy to do. But when it comes to displaying data, making it actionable is a little more difficult. You may need to create benchmarks for certain stats or calculations, and then present a visual indicator when the numbers are out of tolerance.
As you make it clear to employees that they should act, you also need to make sure that they know how to act. Do they need to fix something themselves? Or escalate the issue up the org chart? Or place a service request?
Don’t make employees guess on the course of action. Don’t make them look for a manual to find out the proper protocol. Give them enough information to take the next step needed to keep the plant running at peak performance.
User-centered innovation in manufacturing plants delivers measurable benefits. You help employees quickly decide what to do when, which increases efficiency. This increased efficiency shows employees that they are making progress, both on their tasks and on their production goals. That creates a sense of meaning for employees that will be reflected in employee satisfaction KPIs. And when something goes wrong, your employees will be able to react quickly and correctly, reducing downtime and wasted products and source materials.
These examples show just a few of the metrics that will reflect the value of what user focus for manufacturing technology can bring.
And that’s a lot more valuable than an alert that’s been on the screen for who knows how long.
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