The Ultimate Lean Workforce

Sept. 16, 2019
Technological advances are ushering in the emergence of a new type of workforce that leverages the availability of new tools, devices and gizmos.

Industry 4.0 and the digital age were triggered by an avalanche of technological advances, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), the Cloud, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). These technological advances are ushering in the emergence of a new type of workforce that leverages the availability of new tools, devices and gizmos. 

While it is part of human nature to always look for, and benefit from, whatever new tools are created in order to make life and work easier, it is not just technological advances that have brought about this new era. There are other factors that also contribute to the emergence of a new type of workforce, such as the sharing economy, that promote the culture and ethos of teamwork, collaboration and synergy.

Collectively, all these factors demand a workforce that excels and thrives with the advent of new technologies. It can be referred to as the “ultimate lean workforce” or, as I like to call it, the “Autonomous Workforce.” Members of the Autonomous Workforce are masters of the new technologies and the backbone of Smart Manufacturing, Smart Factories and Smart Cities.

The implications of such a workforce are many — from management delayering to new attitudes toward continuous improvement and learning. Although the concept of a lean workforce has been in existence since the 1980s, the definition of the lean organization has changed substantially due to new technologies, the speed of work, communications and cultural changes.

Current and future generations of employees will demand decentralized, team-based organizational structures, as opposed to traditional pyramid structures. This newer thinking envisions people working together as self-directed work teams to make a better world instead of following a boss just to increase company profit. Peer-to-peer teaming relationships will be the ultimate method to get a lean system to be as quick and agile as possible.

This changing dynamic does not mean bosses or supervisors will not be needed. Instead, their roles will change into those of planners, coaches, facilitators, problem solvers, trainers, etc. Management will still need to provide strategic plans, reports, etc., on the status of the organization.

The thing is, autonomous workers have been around for a long time. Smaller companies have always had little choice but to allow their workers the autonomy to make their own decisions due to lack of resources. What is different is that this thinking  is now taking hold at larger enterprises. Those companies are asking “why” and “how” they can advance their autonomous workforce.

Why an Autonomous Workforce?

As the lean value stream quickens, information is now available in real time and processes are more stable, controlled and standardized. Under these circumstances, a traditional organizational structure is no longer cost competitive and is too slow. Even with technology, communications up and down the management chain are too cumbersome. Plus, why pay for supervision? Supervision is a non-value-added expense. We no longer can afford people whose only mission is to direct others.

Under these new conditions, employees need to be trained to operate as self-directed work teams. Teams are small groups (5 to 12 employees) that work together within a product family, along a supply chain, within and outside the organization. Processes and/or product information that requires action needs to be clear, available and visible. If you find that teams are not able to make decisions on their own, this is an opportunity for improvement that should be addressed.

How to Develop an Autonomous Workforce

Changing from a traditional organizational model to an autonomous one requires a formal understanding of how to get there, as well as support and commitment from senior management backed by a shared strategic plan.

As an organization matures on its lean journey, it will get to the point that an autonomous workforce makes sense. It’s the ultimate lean organization. During this transformation, an autonomous implementation team needs to look at the total supply chain and determine what parts are ready to evolve into an autonomous work team. Start with pilot areas. Learn, adjust, and roll out to the suppliers or customers of that first team.

To make it happen, team members will have to take on additional responsibilities previously shouldered by supervisors. They will volunteer and rotate to take on scheduling, reporting, safety, quality, leadership, discipline, continuous improvement, etc. This will require training in both business and human understanding that will result in a very knowledgeable and supportive workforce.

Critical to the success of an autonomous workforce initiative is employees knowing strategic objectives, having a clear and attractive reward (and discipline) system, belonging to an appropriate team, and being accountable to company and supply chain results. A culture of continuous training/improvement that focuses on using visual systems and developing and maintaining real trust is also a must.

The Autonomous Workforce is all about the need to be globally competitive. It speeds up the delivery of value, reduces costs, improves quality, and results in happier workers and ultimately customers. Read more about how manufacturers can start to realize this vision of the ultimate lean workforce in the book, "Advancing the Autonomous Workforce 4.0."

Frank Groenteman

Frank Groenteman, co-author of "Advancing the Autonomous Workforce 4.0" is an operations consultant at the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, part of the MEP National NetworkTM. A certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Bronze Level Lean Expert who has served as the internal lean transformation manager for many companies, he has more than 35 years of experience in business, engineering and manufacturing management.

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