Bright Wolf Blog

A low risk approach to smart manufacturing innovation

Industrial leaders are under increasing pressure to adopt industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 solutions in order to compete in a connected world. However, most digital initiatives do not live up to expectations.

Common causes include introducing new technology to solve what are primarily people problems and conflicts between teams. Well-meaning, creative innovation groups with a “try new things and fail fast” mindset find themselves at odds with operations managers locked into fixed production goals who are unwilling to put their existing systems at risk.

By taking an iterative, business-focused, and people-first approach, sustainable change can be made across these organizations to drive a lasting competitive advantage.

Start with people

To properly set the stage for successful digital transformation, let’s establish a few key points. Superior technology in itself does not constitute an advantage. Data has little inherent value. Change is only achieved through strategy and execution – both uniquely human activities. Everything else are just tools. Increasingly, incredibly powerful tools. So powerful in fact, it’s not hard to see why new IoT technologies are so often viewed by IT innovation teams as miracle solutions for longstanding OT challenges. We’ll also see shortly why OT teams frequently do all they can to stop these IT innovators in their tracks.

Analog before choosing digital

To illustrate this point from another angle, tech writer and IoT expert Stacey Higginbotham has noted the flurry of COVID-19 related technologies being promoted as solutions for getting people safely back to work. These systems – from Bluetooth beacons to heat sensors to AI-powered visual recognition systems and more – can detect a wide range of workplace and individual worker conditions. However, none of them make anyone safer simply by their installation. Once again, they are just tools. They must be applied in service of a specific strategy, one designed and executed by humans.

Human intelligence before artificial intelligence

First, what problems are you trying to solve? Second, what data do you need to do that? Now you’re ready to consider technology options. Which one provides the data you need for the outcomes you seek in the most cost-effective way? Finally, and most critically, who will be responsible for using each system to deliver these outcomes? These are the people who must buy into the technology in order for the organization to achieve the desired results. If they don’t understand the purpose of the tools, or disagree with the purpose (or if they agree but don’t think the chosen tools can help achieve the purpose), it’s not going to work. And even if they’re enthusiastic about the venture but the tools are simply too difficult to use, the organization will be unable to produce the desired outcomes no matter how “smart” the machines claim to be.

For COVID-19 specifically, and I’ll observe likewise for the myriad of other productivity challenges facing industrial manufacturers today, Stacey wisely concludes, “IoT can help, but it’s not magic.”

Find the helpers

Similarly, Jim Claunch of Bain & Company has called out the critical human factor in the IoT journey. With so many aging systems and labor-intensive processes found in today’s manufacturing facilities and energy production operations, it’s not hard to identify areas where IoT technology and automation can increase efficiency. However, and this is a big however, unless the people responsible for operating those systems, and the teams who are held accountable for maintaining existing outputs are enthusiastic about the initiative, the initiative is doomed to fail. 

OT experience eats IT optimism for lunch.

It’s true that starting small and getting quick wins will help build momentum in an organization for broader digital transformation. That’s why IoT champions, typically IT leaders, must find the areas where OT team support for new technology adoption already exists. It doesn’t matter if these are the highest impact areas or the most urgent to change. What matters is that a digital win – any digital win – moves the company-wide conversation out of the realm of the theoretical and makes it monumentally easier for others to support the movement. Conversely, if the opening project is deemed a failure, becomes trapped in ‘pilot purgatory’, or increases OT/IT animosity, it becomes that much harder for anyone else to pick up the baton. 

When worlds collide

There’s a reason OT teams running the facilities are so often resistant to the digital dreams of IT innovation teams. While the IT engineers are on a mission to change the way the company operates, the operators themselves are committed to meeting the company’s existing production goals. For facility managers, maintaining consistent yields is an all-consuming task, easily derailed by changes to the physical, digital, or human environment. Sustain, sustain, sustain. So, when IT comes into their world with a vision to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt, OT understandably bristles.

This doesn’t mean OT is against digital transformation at all. OT leaders are always looking for ways to increase efficiency and further optimize production. Furthermore, they know in many cases the limits of analog improvements have been reached. But they’re all too aware of the “fail fast and iterate” attitude so prevalent in the software world and the havoc this mindset can wreak in their physical environment.   

Build a bridge

How can both teams achieve their goals? Since new digital technologies have granted IT teams great power, it can be argued that building the bridge is their responsibility. So, what existing model is most likely to produce the desired results between the teams? We’ve already dubbed IT as “disruptive” in their endeavors to digitally transform the enterprise’s physical operations. Therefore, it makes sense to view them as startup-like teams within the larger organization. As such, plant managers, equipment operators, and other facility stakeholders should be seen as their target market. With this perspective, Steve Blank’s discovery model outlined in his book “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” can be transformative. Although written for startups in general, it is directly applicable to current industrial IoT transformation efforts.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

To start, digital innovation teams must get out of their labs and discover their customers – those whose productivity they seek to improve with their solutions. Unless this connection is made, even the smartest engineers will find their efforts bearing little fruit. IT teams must get deep inside their OT compatriot’s heads and truly understand their existing workflows, requirements, constraints, and dependencies. As conservationist John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This is as true in production facilities as it is in nature. As such, a thorough analysis of each thread, including its interactions with others, must be understood before suggesting changes or additions of new threads to the production system. Combined with a focus on use cases and business outcomes, innovators are prepared to derive a theory of success for increasing OT efficiency through new technologies and IT integration.

Using this approach, innovation leaders can attract what Blank refers to as “earlyvangelists.” These are the startup’s first customers, in this case OT staff, who have been looking for digital options and are willing to participate in further collaboration with IT teams who take the time to understand their world. 

Zero waste engineering

What does this approach look like? As mentioned, it begins with truly conspiring with your customers upfront to build trust and a shared map of the current situation. The goal is a partnership between IT and OT based on trust and transparency. It is a shift in mindset that drives iterative thinking and a focus on discovering and delivering value. 

Establishing a quick win and demonstration of business value through adoption of digital technologies inside the operation is crucial for building a broader coalition across the company. Moreover, the size of the initial win is substantially less important than the speed of delivery and enthusiasm of the participants. 

Public demonstrations of IT and OT teamwork will unlock innovation funds and bring more operational groups to the table for even incremental efficiency gains. The same cannot be said for top-down IT-driven splashy rollouts of automated solutions that OT teams largely ignore, even if the technology is exceptional. Better business outcomes arise when IT leaders view OT teams as customers to be served rather than assets to be saved.  

Bring it together

New technologies are enabling incredible results for industrial enterprises. But the same methods used for developing traditional IT services is not acceptable for building industrial IoT solutions. You can’t just roll out a patch to a production line or refresh the browser if something doesn’t work right. This is where IT and OT worlds collide. While it’s critical to remember both groups have the same goals – to optimize operations and create more value than competitors – their contrasting approaches and constraints must be acknowledged. Common ground and alignment is possible, and IT innovation leaders must take the first step toward working with their OT counterparts to keep their enterprises on top in a connected world.

About Bright Wolf

Bright Wolf helps industrial enterprises increase business value by transforming operations and organizations with digital strategy, technology, solution delivery, and team enablement.

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