Bringing Agile to the Frontline in Manufacturing

Aug 11, 2022 6:25:43 AM . Julia Walsh

Agile methodologies originate from the software development sector, where development teams work in a more collaborative and cross-functional manner to deliver a product that is developed with an iterative approach and is continually improved to meet the requirements set out.

This is a methodology that is the exact opposite of the waterfall method of development, where an elaborate plan is established at the beginning based on user requirements and the project is executed by subject matter experts, the aim is to deliver a solution in one go with minimum possible change requests and by following the specs to the exact detail.

The agile methods have become more popular over time as they are iterative and allow room for changes to be made at every stage as needed, it is collaborative in nature so team members work together and deliver solutions faster and with better speed and efficiency. While it originates in IT, the core principles of agile can be applied to absolutely any functional area in an organization. McKinsey shared a post where it explained how agile can be applied to the frontline with a focus on sales, however, the findings hold true for manufacturing when applied using the core principles of agile, let’s understand more as we move on.

Figure 1- Source: McKinsey and company

The experts at McKinsey claim-An agile transformation can release the full potential of frontline staff, leading to more-satisfied, happier employees, lower costs, and better overall performance.” And the way in which companies can be more agile in the desired area is with a focus on, Strategy, Structure, People, Processes, and Technology.

Bringing Agile to Manufacturing:

Strategy- As it is true for every change that happens within an organization, the top management, leaders and the board must make a decision to pursue agile as a strategy in manufacturing. An analysis of the status quo with a goal to understand how frontline workers can be more empowered, collaborate better and are able to use the data from the manufacturing process to make more informed decisions. The first thing that any company’s management should consider would be the tools which they use currently and solutions that can help them do their jobs better.

Digital tools are the primary and perhaps the most preferred ones when it comes to any sort of transformation effort and it is true for agile transformation as well. Workforce management and digitization platforms can possibly empower workers to, make their work more cross-functional, and collaborative and make the organization flatter and leaner, which is the goal of any agile implementation. Choosing the right digital platform for frontline worker digitization might just be one of the most important strategic steps a company can take, that puts them on the path toward agile manufacturing.

Structure- Manufacturing organizations are constantly under pressure to retain existing staff and attract new talent, when organizations get extremely hierarchical and cumbersome to work with, the frontline workers might get frustrated and this may hurt the company’s agile efforts. An innovative way of having a leaner structure fit for agile would be to unleash digital solutions which empower the frontline and give them a voice. Such solutions can help by allowing the frontline workers not only to perform their tasks through work instructions and SOPs received on their mobile devices but connect cross-functionally and with management in case of any event needing such collaboration.

When digitally connected beyond their departments and provided with the ability to collaborate with experts in maintenance, logistics, sourcing, and so on, the frontline workers will not only feel empowered but also valued. When this happens retention improves and so does the ability to attract new talent, as work is not perceived only as the repetitive completion of tasks but as a more interactive and wholesome experience, where the inputs from the frontline matter and are taken seriously by the management, connected through a single overarching digital platform.

People- The frontline workforce needs to be the focus of any agile manufacturing transformation and the best way to do is to equip them with a digital platform that enables them to get their jobs done. When workers contribute to the digitization of workflows, activities, and processes, they transform and become what industry experts refer to as Intelligent Workforce and they also get to define the level of intelligence they obtain from the process. While the decision to digitize manufacturing and pursue agile is top-down, the development and actual implementation of agile should be bottom-up.

Frontline workers can contribute massively to building a ‘Workforce Intelligence Center’, it is the duty of the digitization partner not only to heed them but use their years of experience to improve work instructions, SOPs, and process guidelines as they are digitized. Another major contribution from the frontline and their managers would be on defining the data which matters, what needs to be captured and when. With data comes insight and with insight, intelligent decisions are possible, which not only improve decision making but can leapfrog CI efforts to deliver unforeseen results.    

Processes- The right digital platform can make all the difference when it comes to reconfiguring the processes and making them more agile. It begins with the digitization of paper-based forms, followed by workflows and events, leading up to the digitization of end-to-end processes.

Figure 2-Source: Webalo Inc.

When the operation becomes paperless and the frontline is empowered to perform all their work through their mobile devices, it directly impacts their performance and helps them operate more efficiently. Further, as workflows and events are digitized, data capture moves closer to real-time and this leads to better collaboration and faster decision making, all of which enable the containment of issues faster and corrective actions to be initiated closer to the time OOS events transpire. When the digital platform integrates with enterprise applications like the ERP, SCM, and MES, it improves the overall process execution and connects the entire operation, all of this forms the basis of agile transformation in manufacturing.

Technology- Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to agile transformation of the workforce is, technology. Choosing the right platform to digitize and empower the frontline might just be the difference between having a world-class operation where the efficiency and performance improves in a rapid manner or losing out to competitors who are more agile and have been able to better digitize their frontline.  

Figure 3-Source: Webalo Inc.

The ideal frontline digitization platform extends beyond the manufacturing operation and encompasses the entire functional coverage of the organization, which means everything that supports and sustains manufacturing is digitized as well, giving frontline workers the same platform irrespective of their functional areas. Further the platform integrates the shop-floor and the top floor by acting as a bridge for data to freely move from the enterprise to operations and vice-versa.

When the entire operation is connected and there is end-to-end visibility, that’s when agile kicks in, as it allows workers to capture and report data while being mobile, collaborate with colleagues, and above all, it helps them make intelligent decisions which spurs the rate at which CI efforts happen. All of this leads to an efficient and highly profitable operation, where workers feel their contributions matter and can see their efforts transform into value.