A practical path to improving frontline operations starts with modern digital tools

Aug. 5, 2021
With increasing competition and pressures on so many different fronts, process manufacturers can no longer afford to delay delivering the right technologies to the workers who are at the center of the business.

A rising trend within the manufacturing industry is frontline workers and operators’ desire for digital tools that allow them to make a distributed and remote workforce as productive as possible. Due to the global pandemic and the drastic evolution in the way jobs are being completed, the act of “going digital” is now required for most companies. While digital transformation efforts can be viewed as futuristic by some, it is also critical that humans remain at the center of the manufacturing industry.

This trend started well before the pandemic, as manufacturing has realized that a significant percentage of their workforce is at or close to retirement age. It’s not only the fact that the individuals are leaving but also 30+ years of tacit knowledge is leaving as well. Next up is, how do you attract and retain earlier-career people?

This combination of human-centricity and digital enablement will create a much more successful environment for businesses. This begs the question: how can we help human workers be more efficient and productive while also creating a more digitally empowered business? It begins with putting intuitive technology and modern digital tools in the hands of frontline workers.

Employees and employers want to be productive

Parsable recently released a survey report, "The State of Digital and Connected Work on the Manufacturing Frontlines," that looked at the state of digital access and connectivity in the manufacturing industry from the perspective of frontline workers. We learned that more than 70% of frontline workers across all generations express no hesitation about using digital tools, with 69% of Baby Boomers sharing this feeling.

This is because digital technology has become so predominant in most people’s lives —  81% of Americans now own a smartphone. Even enterprise software, historically outside of the layman’s tech wheelhouse, has evolved to become significantly more user-friendly over the years, with easy-to-use interfaces that are both intuitive and purpose-designed.

McKinsey & Company recently predicted that digital collaboration has the potential to unlock more than $100 billion in value and found that digital tools provide manufacturers the opportunity to boost productivity while enhancing overall quality. With that said, it is surprising that fewer than half of frontline workers (47%) have been given digital technology (smartphone, tablet, wearables, etc.) to help them do their jobs better.

Paper documentation and older file systems are persistent in the manufacturing world. In fact, 79% of respondents still rely on paper-based standard operating procedures (SOPs), resulting in lost visibility and fewer opportunities to improve productivity, quality and safety. Frontline workers spend a great deal of time manually gathering data or looking for information on random pieces of paper that could have been spent doing more important tasks. The majority of frontline workers do not want to be completing everyday work via paper. Instead, 32% of respondents say texting or online chat is the most important type of digital solution that would help them work quickly and allow them to be more productive.

Digital tools’ effect on employee retention & the skills gap threat

Despite COVID-19’s acceleration of the digitization of many areas of industrial operations, there remains a significant opportunity for companies to invest in and empower frontline workers through technology. In fact, digital tool access appears to be one of the greatest generators of employee loyalty.

Parsable’s research found that nearly 30% of frontline workers believe that their employee suggestions for improvements in their work environment are not listened to by the management team — a bright red flag for plant managers and human resources departments alike. This is especially important as 52% of respondents would consider leaving their current jobs to work in a more modern, digital work environment. This sentiment stands true across all generations from Gen Z through Baby Boomers.

Similarly, Millennials and Gen Z might be the hardest to retain as they are the most likely to have short stays at companies with 27% intending to change jobs within two years. The low level of management understanding and lack of technology access will further alienate these younger generations. Unless manufacturing businesses improve accessibility to digital tools for their frontline workers and show that they value employee feedback, we can expect employee turnover to rise.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) reports that 25% of the manufacturing workforce is over 55 years old and that the manufacturing industry already struggles to attract younger workers with the desired skills and qualifications. With Deloitte estimating that the skills gap could leave  2.4 million positions unfilled by 2028, companies should already be thinking of ways to close the digital gap and attract potential candidates from a very limited talent pool.

How to bring manufacturing into the future

The data speaks for itself — frontline manufacturing workers want (and deserve) digital technology that helps them be more productive. Flexibility is crucial, and old ways of working are preventing operations from being agile at a time when it is desperately needed. Agility has become the number one priority for manufacturers as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, but that cannot be achieved unless frontline workers are given the right digital tools to help them work more efficiently and safely.

Steering a company onto the digital track does not need to be a complicated process requiring large teams and budgets. Start by utilizing small, incremental improvements like using software to turn paper-based work procedures – which, among other inefficiencies, encourage pencil-whipping, are hard to analyze and require someone to input the information into a database or system (an extra non-value-added layer of work) – into collaborative, digital work instructions. Other important steps include setting baseline metrics to help measure the impact of digital processes once workers have been given the right tools, regularly evaluating performance, celebrating wins and having a plan to scale.

With increasing competition and pressures on so many different fronts, manufacturers can no longer afford to delay delivering the right technologies to the workers who are at the center of the business. By providing the technology and digital tools that large numbers of frontline workers and operators are requesting, manufacturers will create a more efficient and productive workforce and be on a path toward improving overall frontline operations.

Lawrence Whittle is the CEO of  Parsable, provider of the leading connected worker platform built to digitize, execute, measure and transform industrial work at scale.  Companies with operations in more than 130 countries rely on Parsable to empower their workers with modern, digital tools and improve productivity, quality and safety across their operations.  

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