Digital transformation to outthink manufacturing disruption


This is part of our Leading through change series. The series explores how manufacturing leaders can succeed in turbulent conditions.


Waves of recent challenges have driven many manufacturers to look for new technology solutions. “Over the last 24 months, our manufacturing clients have experienced a lot of external disruption,” said Grant Thornton Audit Services Partner Jeff French.


“What we're seeing now is that those disruptions seem to be moderating, at least for a bit, and it's an opportunity for manufacturers to look inside the four walls at innovation — to become more agile before the next disruption occurs,” French said.


Today, manufacturers have a chance to outthink problems with artificial intelligence, cloud computing, blockchain, the internet of things and other emerging technologies.


But digital transformation is more than technology alone. It’s technology-driven solutions that help support processes, people and culture. It can include smaller efforts that outthink disruptions by digitizing information and improving existing systems.




Transformative access


Transformation was at the core of a conversation between French and Tim Yaggi, president and CEO of Pella Corporation, at the recent board of directors meeting for the National Association of Manufacturers. Yaggi shared examples of how Pella has implemented technology to improve productivity and performance — supporting people, processes and culture together.


Pella, a national leader in window and door manufacturing, performed a thorough evaluation of processes among approximately 7,000 employees at 16 locations. The evaluation was driven by the need to address specific problems.


For instance, Pella needed to increase the workforce at its central Iowa location to meet growing production demands. Pella wanted to take advantage of the strong Hispanic talent pool in the area, but found that its retention of Spanish-speaking employees was not sufficient. One reason was that most of the company’s digital content, documents, manufacturing software screens and signage were in English only.


“It sent the message that we didn't value people enough, and so we made a really concerted effort to change that,” Yaggi said, describing Pella’s efforts to include Spanish versions of everything the employees encountered. As part of the effort, the company ensured that user interface screens on assembly equipment could toggle back and forth between English and Spanish.


What was the result of the change? Yaggi said, “We have finally seen a huge influx of Spanish-speaking team members, and they're staying, and they're among the most engaged people in our company.” This is a key means of digital transformation — using technology to bridge gaps and improve lives for employees, customers and others the company reaches.




Today’s expectations


Today’s employees and customers expect digital products and solutions. They are accustomed to mobile devices and social media that put information in the palms of their hands, with touchscreen access. They can solve problems, place orders and interact on digital platforms. So, they are attracted to the businesses that provide similar solutions — and less attracted to the ones that don’t.


Yaggi shared another digital transformation at Pella involving voice-guided technology. Since Pella provides so many variations of its products, it’s challenging for technicians to know all the different assembly options. As Yaggi said, they are subject to “cognitive overload.”


Enter voice-guided technology. Now, technicians wear headsets where they hear instructions that guide them through which parts to install for each build, and the technicians can confirm their actions through the headset’s microphone.


Yaggi said the implementation of voice-guided headsets has led to improved efficiency and accuracy in production. It has even reduced the time required for training. “These voice-guided systems can get people up to speed so quickly, we have people working in a couple of hours now instead of weeks,” Yaggi said. “So, there's literally been a 90% reduction in training time.” When that difference is scaled across the company, it results in significant time and cost savings.




The culture for true transformation


Just like people, companies can learn a lot about themselves when they encounter a significant or sudden challenge. Recent challenges have given almost every business, big or small, a chance to learn new lessons. Like many of these businesses, Pella found that it needed to become more nimble and resilient — and stay that way.


To move toward digital transformation, you need to take risks. That requires a culture where people are prepared for change and not hesitant to try new ideas in response. Yaggi said that Pella strives to be a company where you can “make decisions rapidly when you have enough information, fail fast and scale successful pilots quickly across the enterprise.”


Today’s manufacturers can use technology to bridge gaps for people, processes and culture, driving change with significant results — that’s true digital transformation.



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