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Festo: Automation projects, organisation, people

Author : Gary Wyles

20 December 2011

Gary Wyles, MD of Festo Training and Consulting, discusses the people and organisational issues that arise when an organisation starts thinking about an automation project

There’s no argument automation increases efficiency and effectiveness. Often though an automation project can have deep reaching consequences for the people internally in an organisation. This impact can be so hard that the loss of productivity negates the benefits of automation, leaving businesses to wonder what on earth made them start down this road in the first place.

The usual scenario is that the board decides that automation of manufacturing processes is something that needs to be undertaken. The strategy is drafted and ratified. The machinery is specified. Now, all that’s left to do is let the staff know what’s happening.

In our experience this is the main stumbling block of business strategies. Engaging employees is left till the last minute. Managers then wonder why when the financials add up and it seems like common sense that employees just don’t seem to ‘get’ it. Few employers engage their employees in formulating the strategy perhaps because in the UK there is a very simple equation.

Automation equals job loss. Even Wikipedia highlights that its main purpose is to reduce the need for human work. Is it any wonder that the employee reaction is not at all enthusiastic when announcing the strategy to automate?

Employee engagement is critical to organisations that require any project to be successful. Experience shows that if there is a top down approach such as the business telling employees what is happening, there will be a low level of engagement. Employees will be less productive, potentially disruptive if actively disengaged and would have no hesitation in leaving, taking business-critical knowledge with them when they go.

If, however, a business engages a cross-section of employees at the start of an automation project to define the remit, inform the specification and liaise with the machine builders not only automation equipment be fit for purpose there will be advocates across the business who can communicate the benefits of the project. Research has shown that peer-to-peer communication is much more trusted than management down information.

The final benefit is that engaged employees stay longer, are more productive and conscientious, make fewer errors and take better care of customers.

An automation project increases the efficiency and effectiveness of production so key employees can be well utilised elsewhere in the business helping deliver a better product for less.

Communication during change
“Customers expect a quality product and this is why we’re automating,” says the managing director. What your employees actually hear is, “You’re not very good at your jobs so it’s likely you’ll lose your job.”

There’s nothing like poor communication to quickly jeopardise the success of a project. Communication forms a key part of engaging your people. If employees are engaged and involved in formulating the strategy, communication has already started. If not, don’t leave it to the last minute.

Another pitfall is to confuse communication with information. Communication is tailored and specific to each audience and their specific and collective needs. A useful way to categorise employees for a change project is as follows :
 Champion: how can I spread the word?
 Cooperator: it’s inevitable
 Fence-sitter: wait and see
 Cynic: another initiative
 Saboteur: not while I’m around

Another stumbling block to good communication is our own reticence. We are usually expert in creating logical reasons not to do something when actually we just don’t want to do it. It might be because a leader thinks they’ve got better things to do and communicating is a waste of valuable time. There might be personal issues such as a fear of public speaking or many other reasons.

A common trap is that leaders aren’t comfortable communicating unless they have all the answers. To be honest thoughthere are few organisations where a project of any size can be discussed without employees hearing about it. The grapevine is very effective and potentially extremely disruptive. It is far better to be able to say what you do know for certain and be crystal clear about what is not yet decided and when you will be able to let employees know.

For any project that is sensitive and can disrupt people, there is only one channel of communication that is of any real value. That is face to face. Emails just don’t cut it. Face to face it much more challenging logistically with shift work and a mix of employed and temporary staff but it is absolutely essential.

Leaders need to speak personally, be open to questions, and have a timeline of when information will be available. Good communication is always a conversation, so have in place a system where feedback can be given confidentially or one to one with managers that is then passed onto the board. If redundancies do need to be made, you will be judged as an employer by how well you treat those leaving the company. Do it well, as you’ll retain key people. Do it badly and you will often end up loosing the very people you wanted to keep.

Employees will always hear sensitive information through the filter of self-interest.
So answer the ‘what does it mean to me?’ question and what and how you communicate will change significantly.

Skills Analysis
For any business to maximise the results of automation you need to know if your people have the right skills and knowledge to operate in a different environment.

Conducting a skills and need analysis will help avoid two common mistakes in an automation project. The first is over specification where your organisation ends up with machinery that costs too much and there might not be the skills internally to operate and maintain it. The second is under specification where the promised outputs not being achieved.Both are equally damaging.

Engaging employees in the design and specification of the machinery will lead to appropriate automation where the complexity of the machinery is compatible with the skills available. At Festo we use a simple four step methodology to understand the needs and skills available called IDEA.

The first step is to identify the needs of the organisation. This process must include those at a senior level, those who will be driving the project, and importantly those who will be participating in the project – including the machine builders and employees who will be operating the machinery once it is delivered and installed.

This stage identifies the business and personal needs of each group and highlights any training needs. For example, does the team have the necessary skills to operate the machinery? Are there the skills internally to maintain and repair the machinery in the long term?

By identifying these needs early on in the project, training can be incorporated at every stage. For example production staff can work side by side with the machine builders to understand the equipment literally inside out.

The second step is to develop tools such as designing a project plan complete with project tools and timescales.

The next step is engagement, which we’ve already discussed [above / in the first article].

The final step is to apply the skills and knowledge learnt through training and development. Employees return to the working environment and encounter reality. Research suggests that as much as 50% of acquired knowledge can be lost within a few weeks if there is no opportunity to use it. Skills need to be applied and practiced as soon as possible. Even then new situations and questions will arise. These can be handled through coaching, clinics and workshops so that the project is regularly measured against the defined KPIs.

Through correct skills and needs identification, employees are equipped to deliver the hoped for business benefits. There is also a strong personal benefit where the individual’s confidence increases because of personal development and the application of new knowledge and skills.

Sustaining improvements through automation
The disruption is finally over. The machinery has arrived and been installed. The management team can sit back and relax and wait for the business to reap the benefits from the capital investment. Not at all. Sorry, but the hard work is definitely not over. Here we look at how a business sustains change and develops a culture of continuous improvement.

Let’s go back to the beginning and start with the initial strategy. It might sound basic but one of the key drivers for continuous improvement and sustaining change is to identify initially what it is you want to improve. It is also easy to think of each project as defined in its own right. Instead, consider wider organisational initiatives that have broader business benefits that can act as an umbrella for specific projects.

For example, if one of the key objectives is to become more energy efficient through automation this provides a rich programme in its own right. The green agenda is a great theme to engage your employees as environmental initiatives and reducing CO2 emissions is a hot topic for many. Ask for their input and ideas into reducing the organisation’s carbon footprint, both within the boundaries of automation and also wider initiatives that could include different areas and parts of the business.

Build energy reduction into the programme as a Key Performance Indicator. Give the organisation as a whole targets, identify team targets and regularly communicate progress and achievements. If time management is a hurdle ask for nominations throughout the business for an energy champion. It’s a great development tool for those wishing to make themselves highly visible in the organisation.

Identify the skills and knowledge needed to help reduce energy consumption. Investigate training and skills development courses and ensure that newly acquired knowledge is actively used in the business.

You’ve already established great lines of communication so ask for more ideas to keep the project fresh. Perhaps once the machinery is installed, the operators can identify a simple modification will yield further benefits. They might realise that actually they need further development to get the most from the equipment. By having open lines of communication, modifications and improvements can be made that deliver better results.

KPIs are a great way to measure and monitor performance. If they are done in a positive way, they can help keep the motivation high and people focussed on continuous improvement.

Final words: The words ‘automation project’ are perhaps a misnomer. It makes us think of a defined beginning and end. Perhaps this is a wish that one day we can cross off a project as finalised and completed. While this is possible it’s really not recommended. Continuous improvement is where the real value lies. By taking these four steps you can create a culture where your people take to make your business grow and prosper.


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