Is there a topic that’s being covered as widely (and, perhaps, as sensationally) right now as artificial intelligence (AI)? (Well, other than Taylor Swift?) It wouldn’t seem so.
Amid all the hype (as well as doom and gloom), it can be difficult for manufacturers to figure out just how AI can help them. Are there ways that managers can benefit from AI right now, or will large expenditures on new hardware, software and personnel with unique skills be required?
There are lots of versions of what everyone is calling AI out there. The version that most of you have probably read about recently is called generative AI—algorithms used to generate new content, including video, charts and graphs, code, pictures and text. It’s the version of AI that writes stories and poems, makes up jokes, and, in the case of my business school students, provides answers to essay quiz questions.
Manufacturers, too, can find value in readily available AI websites like ChatGPT and Bard. How generative AI works to provide this wide variety of output is beyond the scope of this article, but its capabilities are (for the most part) remarkable. I’ve found generative AI to be very helpful in answering questions, brainstorming and communicating. In the same way, generative AI can help managers with many of the tasks they routinely face.
Imagine that you need to quickly put together an outline for training your forklift drivers. Generative AI can do that for you. Perhaps you’ll be interviewing candidates for an open position to manage your sales team and you want to know what sorts of questions to ask in an interview. Generative AI will give you that list, as well as the responses you should listen for.
Maybe you recently heard the term “disruptive innovation” and you want an explanation of the term that a high school freshman would understand. Submit your request to one of the generative AI sites and you’ll have an explanation in seconds.
Or suppose that you’re just about to leave for the day when you learn that a usually reliable vendor is canceling an order. You want to write an email that expresses your displeasure and your expectation that the vendor will rectify the problem but that doesn’t anger the vendor. You’re having trouble finding just the right words. Generative AI can produce a draft for you right now.
Generative AI is particularly good at just these sorts of tasks. It’s also good at providing data, facts, and information…usually. Let’s say you want to know, specifically, which OSHA statutes apply to your specific industry and operations. Generative AI will probably answer the question correctly. But you should verify that output with other sources. I’ve asked questions to which I’ve gotten answers that I knew were incorrect. Generative AI will generally tell you straight away if it doesn’t know the answer to your question, but occasionally, it will make stuff up. The more vital the information or data, the more important it will be to “check the answer”.
How you ask questions; i.e, how you phrase “the prompt,” is important. The more information you can put into the prompt, the more useful the response will be. Let’s look at the example of the forklift training I mentioned above. A simple prompt like: “Write a set of instructions for safe operation of a forklift,” or “Write an outline for training my forklift operators,” will work well.
On the other hand, you’ll get more help in generating interview questions with a prompt like:
My sales department is made up of four salespeople and a clerical assistant. We produce and sell packaging to the food industry. Give me a set of appropriate questions to ask candidates for the position of sales department director in an interview.
The same is true for the prompt that asks for an email to the poorly performing vendor: a longer prompt with more detail will give you a better result than “Write an email to a late vendor.”
And here’s the thing; if you don’t like the first response, you can always modify your prompt and get another response. Generative AI is very patient. You can ask essentially the same question in slightly different ways a dozen times, and it won’t get testy with you!
As with any technology, the more you use generative AI, the more comfortable you’ll get with it. Before long, you’ll be using it to write emails, put together presentations and even get suggestions for solving problems. And if you need a joke to open up your budget presentation to your boss, why, generative AI can help with that, too.
Prompt:I'm going into a meeting in which I'm going to present my budget to my boss for approval. I'd like to open with a joke or a funny story to lighten the mood. What can you suggest?
AI response: Before we begin, I have to admit that working on this budget felt a lot like trying to fold a fitted sheet perfectly - it seems impossible, but you still try your best!
OK, so generative AI won’t make any of us forget Jerry Seinfeld. In many cases, though, it can provide just the sort of data or ideas that we need to move us forward.
Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.