As an Application Engineer for Real Time Automation, Inc., I work with customers day in and day out, installing and integrating RTA products into their systems. After a pretty significant reorganization at RTA, I became the production lead.
I never worked in production at RTA prior to this “promotion,” nor did I have any prior experience. I was simply, instantly put in charge of assembling, packaging and shipping RTA products to all our customers all over the world. Wow, did it open my eyes! I was faced with a series of manual steps that needed to take place in a particular order just to ship out a single gateway.
I was hired to do software development and, with that experience in my back pocket, I started thinking about how I could make the process better and easier through automation. When I spoke with the production staff, their first response was that the software we were using could do more, but we weren’t using it to its full potential. In response, I developed and retooled the entire process from stem to stern, using an app that was easily modifiable and updateable. I spent the first several months learning, making only minor tweaks to start while remaining mindful not to change too much right away. I gave myself the goal of making one procedural change each month.
After a year using the new production system, I gathered the team for a postmortem meeting. Paraphrasing the team, they said the system is so easy, a monkey could do it. It was an “ah-ha” moment: we could totally relate to customers’ problems because we, too, had just gone through the automation process on our own production floor. Granted, our production floor is smaller and far less complicated than most companies we work with, but the process is the same…and we can empathize.
If you’re looking to automate your factory floor, here are a few things I learned.
- Pick a method to achieve your future state. There are many articles out there to help you tackle the challenge before you. A couple of good ones I found helpful are Mastering Efficiency: 4 Steps to Automate Common Processes and 15 Smart Tips for Introducing Automation to Your Business.
- Live your current process. Perform the actual tasks your co-workers are doing each day on the line. It sounds like a no brainer but so many managers overlook this critical step. Have you ever seen Undercover Boss? A high-ranking officer at a company disguises himself/herself as a new hire and gets put through the paces of a lower-level position. Some of the episodes are funny, some are sad, but overall, they’re entertaining. Most importantly, the results achieved through the new procedures and policies that are implemented are always positive and beneficial to both the company and the employees. You have to know how it works before you can fix it.
- Gather feedback. The best feedback comes from the employees performing the work. Nine times out of ten you’ll initiate positive change. Plus, you’ll empower those most affected by the change and promote a culture of open-mindedness and inclusivity.
- Review and reflect. Don’t just make a change and move on. Assess your changes after they’ve been in use for a period and measure them, if you can, against quantifiable data points to track improvement. Perhaps start with quarterly check-ins and do a deep dive analysis after a year (you don’t want to wait until things go off the rails before adjusting). And if it doesn’t improve, you can always revert back to what you had before. Learning from a failed attempt is better than not even trying to improve.
What Happened Next?
For me, I spent a few years modifying and tweaking the process to focus on growth, specifically how to ship 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 units more efficiently while cutting costs? Then, I handed production over to someone else. But don’t worry, the person who took over is just as capable, just as dedicated to improvement and equally committed to sending a free toy in your gateway box. (You do know about our free toys, right? Even though I’m out of production, seeing photos from someone who’s collected all five is still the highlight of my week!)