Home » Blog » A Digital Dilemma

A Digital Dilemma

The Digital Factory in a New Normal

I continue to be captivated by the continuing focus and application of Factory 4.0. and the digital transformation. I recently had the opportunity to listen to an AME Webinar featuring Steven Spear from MIT and author of the DNA of the Toyota Production System and The High Velocity Edge. I have known Steven for some time and openly admit that he has often influenced my thinking regarding lean. The title of the webinar is “Discover our Way to a New Normal”. Basically, it is about trying to understand the right answers for moving forward considering the impacts of the pandemic or our next “black swan”. I’m likely not doing the webinar justice, but I boiled it down into 3 key points for me:

  • You cannot think your way to the new normal. Your thinking will be based on what you already know and will not give you answers for the new normal.
  • You will have to discover your way to the right answers. Discover your way to the new normal. You do not currently have the answers.
  • Lastly, what are the problems going forward and experiment with discipline and speed. Push problems out and get lessons back. Now you have “new knowledge”.

This really got me thinking about one of my fascinations and curiosities, Factory 4.0, the digital factory. I make no claim to be an expert in digital factory technologies, but I have learned quickly through multiple interactions and consulting contributions to a digital strategy. Although I am convinced that there are digital answers for the new normal, I am equally convinced we don’t know what they are. Some possible options for a digital strategy in the new normal might be:

  1. More technology and faster is better. Reacting and panicking based on some “perceived” need and the next “shinny penny” technology.
  2. Steady as she goes. Current approach and current pace.
  3. The purposeful approach. Define the purpose (what challenges are you trying to overcome), express the problem(s) and discover through experimentation and experience.


Twenty years ago I co-founded, with Jamie Flinchbaugh, the Lean Learning Center. It’s difficult to summarize years of experience and experimentation that guided our thinking, but it’s clear that the foundation principle that defined and summarized our work the best was “PURPOSE BEFORE TOOLS”.   That is the recognized norm for today’s lean transformation, but it wasn’t 20 years ago. No surprise then that my approach to getting answers for the new normal is option #3-The purposeful approach, or as Steven Spear puts it, “discover your way to the new normal”. You can poke holes in the following examples, but you cannot poke holes in the thinking. “You need to experiment to learn the answers”.

  • It is a challenge to surface and solve problems quickly and effectively. This likely will become a bigger challenge in the new normal. Part of the digital strategy to surface and solve problems could be the “See to Solve” app that surfaces the problem, alerts the appropriate 1st responder, confirms a response, and documents/sorts problems. Easy and inexpensive experiment that will provide a lot of feedback very quickly for possible broader and more targeted application.
  • Another Covid-19 impact is the furlough of many skilled employees and the likelihood that many will not return. The results, as we have learned, will unquestionably be more quality problems (effectiveness) and less productivity (efficiency). A possible answer to this post-Covid new normal might be visible and readily available digital work instructions. Agco, a large agricultural equipment manufacturer, has used Google Glass for a few years now to give their operators immediate visual access to their work instructions including digital checklists. Google Glass has been an excellent solution for Agco but would be an expensive and slow “test” of a digital tool to solve the problem. What about starting with a tablet mounted on a wood box in front of an operator with digital work instructions as an experiment? You might learn quickly that the work environment (dust, humidity, etc.) will not work for a digital application or maybe the culture is not ready.
  • Compounding the challenges is that change will be happening fast. The problem, how can we make fast and effective decisions at the point-of-activity. How do you connect information to the decision makers at the point-of-activity as efficiently as possible? I was recently working with a defense contractor and exposed to a very sophisticated software program that recognizes the “chain of events,” down to the smallest detail, impacted by any change in supplier delivery. A test of a family of parts and simulation of any delivery changes quickly exposed the potential. Was not expensive but did take a bit of time. Surprisingly, there was not the same emphasis and effort toward the customers; you know, the people that pay the bills. The customer interface needs to be as seamless as possible for rapid connection and decision making by the customer and your organization. Many of you are saying “but we already do that and we have improved and streamlined many of our customer connections to and from the customer”. No argument, but would it not be a simple exercise to identify the ideal critical success factors and “bundle” them for a single possible digital solution, a single experiment for a variety of possible improvements.

Jamie and I have developed a Factory 4.0 survey examining the new normal for digital applications. What problems need to be solved? What are the barriers to application, etc.? Our goal is to share the learning in blogs or videos with a broader audience so we can share and learn together. Please take the time to access the survey on the link below and complete the survey. Results will be shared as requested and also presented at the Lean Frontiers Summit in November.  Thank you in advance for all your contributions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *