Ask an Influencer: Katy George

Understanding the human role in manufacturing’s digital transformation

This installment of Ask an Influencer features an MxD interview with MxD board director Katy George. George is also senior partner, chief people officer and a leader in the Operations Practice at McKinsey & Company. George discusses the human side of Industry 4.0’s workforce transformation in the face of headlines that ask “When will robots take our jobs?”

Based in New Jersey, George co-leads McKinsey’s partnership with MxD. For McKinsey, she oversees all people functions, including diversity and inclusion. She also leads client transformation as well as research related to technology-enabled operations and manufacturing. This Q&A is based on an interview done via Zoom.

What do people need to hear about the human role in digital manufacturing’s workforce of the future, and how do leaders help workers push past fears about “robot takeovers”? 

The Short Answer

The impact of Industry 4.0 on the workforce in manufacturing and, more broadly, the supply chain is often misunderstood. There’s this whole notion of a future of fully automated, lights-out factories running on their own, without any workers. But when we look at the very best examples of companies that have embraced digital manufacturing technologies at scale, those that have been most successful have been using them in a very human-centric way.

There’s a happy story here about opportunity, because what we’re talking about is democratization of technology. With Industry 4.0, we’re using technology to increase workforce skills. If this is properly communicated —  and if there is proper engagement —  the workforce can get quite excited about the path to build their skill base (and therefore their marketability), their career, and their sustainability to have a great job in manufacturing.

The Long Answer

Automation and augmented reality and all of the exciting capabilities that stem from advances in digital technology are actually helping humans do their jobs faster and better. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the dull and the dirty and the dangerous aspects of manufacturing get replaced, and the humans have a more creative and more important role than ever, which is integrating and leveraging these new capabilities in ways that drive growth and quality and often create new products or services.

We’re seeing that in a turbocharged way, if you will, with workers leveraging the data and digital capabilities that we have and getting even better at what they do.

Through the Global Lighthouse Network, a World Economic Forum initiative in collaboration with McKinsey & Company, a growing number of manufacturing organizations have qualified as lighthouses. These companies represent the best examples of digital deployment at scale in manufacturing – and across the network, workforce satisfaction and engagement have gone up, not down.

Augmented reality, for example, allows someone who has not had years of specialized training to be an expert at something and to get really complicated things done. Suddenly we’re seeing companies using technology like that to upskill their workforce.

One of the lighthouses said they were trying to make every one of their operators into technicians and every one of their technicians into engineers and all of their engineers into scientists. To do that, they had two academies they were running for different parts of their workforce to build new skills. Plus they were recruiting new types of people into the company to bring that digital and analytics capability. And this is a company that would describe its strategy as lights-out manufacturing. So OK, there are less people on the floor at any one time, but there are a lot more people actually working in a control room and doing the improvement projects and thinking about how to leverage data and technology in new ways.

And these lighthouses are not just big companies. We’ve seen some startups that have done amazing things. In large companies we’ve seen specific plants or product areas that have said, “We’re not going to wait for the rest of the company. We’re going to go try some new things.” And they’ve become standouts.

To get employee buy-in for increased digital transformation requires building digital competency and comfort in the frontline workforce. We’ve seen lots of different ways that companies have done this, such as with learning academies or by building skills in real time and then helping people see how those skills are applied. The most successful programs are not teaching skills separately and then later applying them in the workplace. Rather they have a really tight connection in a transformation program between boot camps and academies and skill-building and then helping the workforce apply those skills for real impact.

A mistake we see companies make is they get excited about rolling out a technology as opposed to getting clear about the performance impact they want to have and then choosing the technologies to suit that. The reason this level of clarity is important for the workforce is because it allows the company to bring the workforce along on the digital journey, and engage the workforce around the objectives of implementing new technologies: “Why are we doing this? What are we trying to achieve? What would success look like for your operations? What would success look like for you?” And therefore “What is the path we’re going to take in terms of new technologies, training in these technologies, working together to adopt them, etc.?” 

Being clear about the objective, or the “why,” is most important before you start investing in technologies and as the first step of engaging the workforce.

One of the most important things that people care about in work is whether they see their own development, whether they see a path to a really sustainable, good career. And sometimes in manufacturing, people have felt that it was very transactional, that you had manufacturing work when things were good. Then, if something changed suddenly, that work went away.

But if companies are investing in the workforce to build these new skills that are highly, highly sought after, not only by their company, but others — and, again, if it’s properly communicated and there’s proper engagement — the workforce can get quite excited.