Operations Is Not a Four-Letter Word

In my experience there has always been a bit of a stigma attached to the words “operations,” “manufacturing” and “factory.” In many organizations working in manufacturing, operations, a plant, or factory is a career backwater, a place to get out of for the more interesting functions such as finance, marketing or the holy of holies, “strategic planning.”

If one had to work in something operational, the perception was that it was better to work in something sexier-sounding like “supply chain management” as that has a slightly fizzier ring to it. I found some Black Belts who would try to avoid assignments in factories in pursuit of projects attached to other areas of organizations.

But perhaps as never before Process Excellence (PE) professionals are needed to re-think and re-design operational processes. In part, this is because of the enormous possibilities presented by the rapid advances in artificial intelligence and in robotics. If we are not to squander a golden opportunity to create lean operational processes leveraging AI and robots, progressive PE thinking is required lest we simply automate broken and unlean processes.

The competencies and experiences required by these PE professionals rests on several pillars including:

  • Hands-on experience on what it means to achieve lean-flow in processes;
  • An understanding of how to enable such a process with digital intelligence;
  • Skills in mediating the cultural and behavioral issues that will arise as we transition from current paradigms to new ways of working in processes that are increasingly overseen and operated by artificial intelligence and robots.

The first challenge is that lean-flow is a philosophy that is relatively easy to describe in terms of tools and concepts, but is a set of principles that is truly understood only after one applies and practices these principles many times with feedback from a knowledgeable coach. A hands-on expertise in lean-flow is as important in a digital process as it is for an analogue process. But many Lean Six Sigma Black Belts have book-knowledge of lean concepts but inadequate experience putting these ideas into practice with a coach.

A second challenge is that there is a divide or “wall of ignorance” between IT and PE professionals. They rarely interact and their worlds, while complementary, are in many subtle ways counter to each other, much like a right-handed person trying to write left-handed and visa versa. To put it simply, Process Excellence practitioners deal in the flow of activities while IT practitioners work in the realm of information flow. While the two are analogous, it is amazing how professionals from these two worlds think they talking about the same thing, “the process,” when in fact each group is looking at “the process” from quite different perspectives. PE professionals have an opportunity to help bridge these two worlds by building their skills in and knowledge of IT concepts and conversely, IT professionals need to understand the fundamentals of lean-flow.

Finally, although “change management” and other soft-skills related to behavior and culture is a part of most Process Excellence training and development, I have generally found that although many of the tools and approaches related to change management are necessary (for example “stakeholder analysis” is useful and important tool) they are not sufficient for managing the kind of massive change the AI and robotics revolutions will bring. For example, change managing the transition from a people-intensive set of processes to one that is much lighter in its need for employees involves more than just downsizing; I believe it also involves important organizational policy, culture and vision issues involving the highest executive levels. This suggests a much more overt and strategic linkage between PE professionals who are working to re-engineer processes and the senior leaders who need to redesign the employee-employer compact.

Operations-intensive settings will provide big opportunities for PE professionals to work and learn on the leading edge of the next phase of process excellence.



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