Jul 08, 2020

Preparing Your Team for Automation and Identifying Opportunities (Part 2 of 3)

It’s never too early to start preparing your people for change.

Your operation is under constant pressure to improve efficiency, but like with many things in life and business, change is hard. It involves risk and uncertainty. Employees tend to be resistant, fearing change, especially automation, will negatively impact their role. Therefore, the time to start prepping your people is before you consider automation.

This post is the second part of our series on automation. Be sure to check out the first post here. It covers why automation matters and the advantages it offers your operation.

Preparing Your People

By involving your employees in the conversation early, you can get their buy-in. They often share solutions that you didn’t initially think about. If workers are given input in the changes proposed, they’re more likely to accept them. However, when changes are forced, resistance is common.

When it comes to automation, many people harbor fears about their job being reduced or eliminated. But that’s hardly the case. Instead, automated solutions free up workers to focus on more challenging and rewarding tasks, thus increasing employee satisfaction.

Here are two key things to keep in mind when preparing your people for automation:

  • Get in front of fears before rumors and speculation begin, and they will start as soon as you start talking about change.
  • Reassure your team that every employee is valued, and the positions directly impacted will be deployed to more meaningful, valuable jobs.

When this happens, everyone looks back and wonders why you didn’t automate a long time ago.

According to the 2020 MHI Report, “when implementing the latest automation, involving key operational employees in the pilot program is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to your workforce and improve overall adaption rates. It shows you value their input and creates a sense of involvement and ownership.”

Preparing your people for change and embracing an innovation mindset is vital for success. Why?

  • Change is hard, and it can be scary.
  • Change is necessary to remain competitive and achieve goals.
  • Change can replace mundane tasks with more rewarding jobs. Processes are always changing.
  • Change is an opportunity to remain competitive - ensuring that your workforce will have jobs long into the future.

Embrace Changes as a Company

Here are a few tips for establishing a culture of innovation within your organization:

  • Start early and allow time for a complete process. Projects almost always take longer than expected. Allow for these delays and prepare people to take part in every step of the process.
  • Involve everyone from the start - including the IT team. IT almost always has a role, but they tend to be the last to find out about new initiatives. Start by identifying technology parameters to get key IT personnel involved. It may be the thing that eliminates delays and unnecessary expenses later.
  • Communicate progress to everyone. You’ll more than likely have a core team leading the initiative, but give everyone in the facility visibility to your project. Proactively communicate as things progress and build excitement to reduce fear and uncertainty.
  • Test and implement solutions for each employee in every department. Your team will know details about processes you don’t. Often, new champions emerge at this point and help lead in the initiative.
  • Adapt and adopt new technologies and embrace a changing environment. Employees with less exposure to the initiative still need to understand it. Help them adapt to the new environment and embrace new technology as it’s presented.

Identify Opportunities to Automate

One of the most prominent challenges organizations face is deciding where to start and what part of the process to automate.

Sometimes the most visible jobs (that no one wants to do) are the hardest to automate. Therefore, focus on what truly adds value to your operation. Specific applications are too complex to identify an automated solution or have limitations that make them not feasible.

Identifying where to automate can be the most challenging piece, so start with these questions:

  • What’s too tedious?
  • What’s too complicated?
  • What’s the overall value?

One of the most common mistakes is trying to do too much too fast. Companies feel like their best opportunity is the most prominent, most complex process that’s difficult to manage. When actually…the opposite is true.

Control the Scope

Instead of trying to tackle your entire process, control the scope with manageable, specified tasks that add value to your warehouse operation. Small changes can lead to significant results.

Start with something easy - a quick win that will increase confidence and justify the concept. Employees are more likely to support future, bigger projects if you can show them a successful one.

Automate incrementally and prioritize. Instead of stoving a complex issue right out of the gate, start with a piece of the project.

For example, one of our customers wanted to solve a complex issue, but we started with a simple trash run. The concept proved itself and provided a return on investment within 12 months. This quick win a platform for launching other, more complex projects in the future.

Leverage ready-made solutions, if possible. Take, for example, an automated forklift. This type of “ready-made” solution is usually less expensive, and it’s easier to service in the future if it’s not unique to you.

Deploy a demo to minimize challenges. Not every solution can be demoed, but if demos are available, take advantage of it. There may be a cost, but it’s worth it. Shipping and setting up automated equipment is expensive and takes time. Be willing to invest in a proof of concept to ensure a good outcome.

Lastly, arrange a controlled pilot before going live. This “test run” allows you to work out the kinks before they become a major problem - saving you time and money in the future.

Determine the Team

Once you have decided what part of the process to automate, determine a Project Manager. It may be a manager, an engineer, or a team leader. Select someone familiar with the application and has time to own the project and keep it on track.

Then, select a supporting team to champion the project alongside the Project Manager. Include people from top management to workers on the operations floor - anyone who needs to give input and provide support. The next step is to identify potential vendors. Do your research and select companies with experience in solving your specific challenge. Meet with each possible vendor and choose the best fit. Trust the experts, but don’t go in blindly.

Finally, cultivate a partnership with the vendor and open your doors to them. Put everything on the table. They are now your partners, and they need to know the truth, even if it’s not pretty. It’s essential that you share everything to ensure a positive result.

Outline the Parameters

Details are critical when it comes to automation. Prepare to get more detailed than you ever have before.

Size, shape, weight, quantities, volume, throughput - you name it. Many companies do not have this information ready, so start your preparations now.

Automation isn’t magic. It takes time and planning to implement successfully. Don’t undervalue the time commitment. Most projects take 12-36 months from the initial concept to cutting a PO.

Allow plenty of time for the discovery process, concepts, drawings, and proposals. Additionally, keep in mind that products have lead-times. Don’t try to force the spend into this fiscal year if there is no way to finish the project on time. This sometimes forces companies to think differently about budgeting, as they often lose the money if they don’t spend it in the fiscal year.

Lastly, commit to the resources. Involve as many people as necessary. Management and engineering teams often feel like they understand the business and the processes. But, talk to the people on the floor doing the job. There is nothing worse than implementing a system that doesn’t work, and the employees saying, “I could have told you that wouldn’t work.” Tap into their knowledge and ideas for optimum success.

The Superior Choice

Automated material handling systems have many benefits for your operation and your people. From boosting productivity and reducing operating costs to minimizing safety concerns and deploying employees to more meaningful tasks, automated solutions offer a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

If you’re considering automation (or already started the process), remember to involve your people early to win their buy-in. This is key to building a culture of innovation and change within your organization. Identify small, incremental tasks to automate first. Then, create a platform for bigger, more complex projects.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our blog so you get notified when part three of this mini-series on automation releases later this week. In our final post, we’ll explain how to define success and anticipate adjustments in the process. In case you missed it - check out part one of this mini-series here.


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