Why operator involvement is key to Industry 4.0

Frederik Van Leeckwyck on , updated

Ever since the term Industry 4.0 was coined in 2011, it has taken the world of manufacturing by storm. Business and market drivers like production reshoring converge with technological advances such as ever cheaper sensors. Even though lots of attention is going to the technologies that enable Industry 4.0, the importance of employee involvement in general and operator involvement in particular is greatly underappreciated.

As a consequence, operations managers are at risk of outpacing the adaptive capacity of their operators, resulting in a state-of-the-art manufacturing apparatus with uninvolved and unmotivated operators to run it. Additionally, long-term absenteeism numbers rise year after year. In Belgium, an average of 7% of employees was absent in 2016 on any given working day, with 3% in total being absent for longer than a year.

In contrast, highly motivated and involved employees are 50% less likely to be absent from work and are 13% more productive. Management is aware of this challenge. Philipp Ramin, CEO of I40.de, the German Innovation center for Industry 4.0, recently polled an audience of Industry 4.0-practitioners on the question “What are the main challenges behind industry 4.0?”. With 34 responses in total, the answer “to get the employees involved” received the most votes, followed by “to adapt the current business model” and “to get the necessary knowledge”. Counterintuitively, finding money and the right technology appear to be the least of their worries.

Poll question: What are the main challenges for Industry 4.0? Source: Philipp Ramin, “Industrie 4.0: What’s in it for me?”, I40.de

In this article, we focus on the challenge of employee involvement. As President Kennedy once said in his infamous Moon Speech: “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard”.

Michelin’s future plants will be considerably different from those of today. But we must always — and even more and more — build them around man. Dominique Foucard, Head of Industrial Performance at Michelin

The importance of goal setting for employee involvement

Already in 1968, the psychologist Frederick Herzberg described the role of employee involvement on job satisfaction in his Two-Factor Theory. According to the theory, high involvement can be stimulated by giving employees a sense of performance, recognition, growth and achievement. All of these so-called satisfiers can be stimulated by goal setting. Goal setting still is a crucial aspect of heightened operator involvement according to Cédric Velghe and Maxime Loose from Ghent University’s spin-off The VIGOR Unit. In this context, they define it as giving operators the ability to set manufacturing goals in consultation with their peers and superiors.

Interestingly however, goal setting in and of itself is not primarily driving increased operator motivation. Instead, the motivational aspect comes from having the possibility to regularly and independently monitor the progress towards the goal you set yourself; aptly named feedback-seeking behaviour.

Unfortunately, I too often see poorly implemented feedback mechanisms. Monthly feedback systems are not unheard of. Naturally, you cannot expect an operator to be thoroughly involved in the production performance of two months ago. In summary, it is crucial for operational performance to master the use of feedback through goal setting and accompanying feedback-seeking behaviour. The implications and benefits are numerous: Operators have the opportunity to extend their job description and content, which is proven to further benefit job involvement and, correspondingly, motivation. Furthermore, goals should not always have to be production-related; especially for your most experienced operators.

Operations can more easily spot where and why production is lacking, allowing for ample time to take corrective action on the short and longer term. This requires the instillment of a culture where not meeting goals is not automatically linked to repressive action.

It creates the opportunity to introduce a competitive edge in the team. Care must be taken however to not let gamification of the job take on perversive results. Goals can be regularly adapted in order to meet the acute needs of the organization. In doing so, they will probably increase job satisfaction even more, as mentioned in the first point.

Motivation is a result of the ability to regularly and independently monitor your progress towards the goal you have set yourself.

Operator motivation in Industry 4.0

Within Lean Manufacturing, the Performance Board is a well-known tool that serves to inform everyone on the state of production by displaying progress towards set goals. Ideally, the board is readily available by placing it conveniently in the production hall and by presenting the metrics in such a way that they are easily understood. Mostly, shift supervisors gather data from different information systems manually to complete the board at the beginning of the day or shift.

In theory, this performance board gets the job done of providing regular feedback, even though it is labour intensive to keep it up to date and relevant. In practice however, many of these boards get buried over time in general announcements, safety warnings, old and irrelevant metrics. When this is the case, the board essentially becomes useless. In addition, due to the limited size of the board, the information on it is often the result of a trade-off between individual and company relevance.

With the onset of Industry 4.0 and the accompanying increased availability of data, the time is right to bring the performance board into the modern day.

On site level, real-time dashboards have the potential to replace the performance board by bringing the most up to date and relevant information into full view and into perspective.

While this seems like a trivial step at first, information silos prevent this aggregated view. Lots of effort is still needed to centralize and contextualize relevant data, commonly referred to as horizontal and vertical data integration. We envisage further individualisation of real-time dashboards to facilitate regular and independent progress monitoring by the operators, enabling their goal-setting and feedback-seeking behaviour. Once data is centrally available, dashboards per production line or machine are not far off. Even truly individual dashboards are within reach.

To be fair, with overly automated data interpretation comes the danger of operators overlooking it, as they loose touch with it. Care must be taken to avoid this by making sure the information is relevant and correct at all times.

1–2–3 Go!

To enable operators’ goal-seeking behaviour, companies first need to lay the foundations by setting up initiatives to gather and contextualize data from different systems in production.

Secondly, motivating operators through goal setting requires a cultural shift towards feedback-driven management. Operators should be given the freedom to set their goals, directly related to manufacturing output or otherwise, in consultation with their superiors and colleagues.

Finally, the cultural shift can be sustained by giving operators the tools to enable, sustain and encourage their feedback-seeking behaviour by accessing data and information when they need it. Even better, they should be involved in designing and developing such tools.

Operator involvement is a hard challenge but one we should not be willing to postpone. Industry 4.0 will only work if we manage to align people and technology.

Thanks to Luc De Cleir for his constructive feedback on the article.

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