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As the manufacturing industry leans more and more on machinery to reduce risks and errors, what does the future of continuous improvement look like?

What is lean methodology?

Lean methodology focuses on continuous improvement and respect for people. Manufacturing led on this for many years, and employed human creativity to analyse and improve work, develop physical automation solutions and drive significant improvements in productivity and quality. Dangerous, repetitive or laborious tasks, where human involvement can introduce risk or error, are now routinely performed by machines, allowing people to focus on more value-adding aspects of their jobs. Physical systems (e.g. Kanban cards) have evolved into software that runs semi-autonomously.

Looking forward

We’re moving from an age in which people are supported by processes that are run by technology, to an era in which processes are run by technology with augmented support from people.

In the past, improvement ideas have come from people’s analysis and creativity. Often, the improvements have looked for physical automation to increase productivity, improve flow, reduce waste and eliminate human error (poka-yoke).

This has allowed significant improvements in the gathering of data for analysis. For example, an out-of-tolerance torque reading from a drill used to assemble components can, in real-time, trigger an alarm, allowing engineers to compare the data from previous issues. This in turn allows them to assess the risk and determine if, for example, the line should be stopped, or the product should be removed from the line, or reworked at the end of the line. As your data pool (from across your network of plants) increases, your ability to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) to support those human decisions also increases.

We’re now in an era where improvement ideas come from both humans and technology. Non-physical improvements, such as data-cleansing and algorithm fixes, are sources of competitive advantage.

Guided by an unwavering focus on adding value to customers, Industry 4.0 (connected assets) allows supply chains and business models to evolve. Rather than sequential, tiered supply base structures, manufacturers are increasing parts of ecosystems that share demand information in real-time and collaborate to respond effectively. Harnessing the power of data, businesses are migrating from selling products to services – using performance data to drive predictive maintenance, for example, and allowing clients to buy uptime, not assets. This allows them to focus on the real value-add part of their business model.

Improved productivity

Moreover, productivity gains (often in excess of 50%) and error-proofing in non-physical, ‘Extract – Transform – Load’ administrative functions are being realised through a combination of automation, AI and end-to-end process simplification. If a decision can be made in less than one second, it can easily be automated. AI solutions (such as IBM Watson) can analyse documents, images, verbal/written conversations and so forth, and either make decisions that automation will then execute, or summarise to support human decisions. This allows everyone to perform with ‘full’ knowledge, reducing the impact of attrition on the labour force. Aiming for the minimum required human intervention, businesses should focus their people on adding value for customers and protecting their enterprise by collaboratively seeing and solving problems (continuous improvement), rather than working in sequenced silos. The robotic process sector is growing rapidly, and whilst research shows that many businesses are investigating the technology and rolling out some early proof-of-concepts, few are employing this so-called Next Generation Lean methodology to overhaul and future-proof their processes. As a result, many risk embalming 20th Century business procedures and missing the opportunity to create a 21st Century, digitally-enabled front/back-office.

A world in which the human workforce innovates freely, and exercises judgment, empathy and creativity, and the digital workforce executes flawlessly and improves iteratively.

This is the world of Next Generation Lean.