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The Future of Frontline Work in Manufacturing | Interview with ABB and Frontline Sidekicks

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Working in the manufacturing industry today means confronting a number of challenges, including:

  • Backlog from COVID years
  • Intensified supply chain disruptions
  • Labor shortage

At Beekeeper’s Frontline Success Summit 2022, we talked with two manufacturing experts about these challenges and how they’re affecting both frontline workers and managers:

  • Alex Barber, Frontline Leadership Expert, Frontline Sidekicks
  • Heinrich Supthut, Manufacturing Manager – Local Division System Drives, ABB

Let’s recap the discussion. (You can also watch the complete recap here)

Current Challenges in the Manufacturing Industry

For manufacturing companies, these challenges have caused disturbances in logistics and have made it difficult to predict what’s going to happen next. Reduced reliability means that a manufacturer might request materials for the following day and build up a shift to deal with them only to have those materials not show up.

These disturbances also cause many manufacturing companies to always be in crisis mode. Managers have to communicate constantly to put out logistical fires just so operations continue to function.

“It’s really a complete communication chaos. If everything changes on a daily basis, you expect tomorrow to look a certain way and then it looks completely different. There’s nothing else you’re doing but communication. You can’t work on any improvement projects. Anything you’re doing is communication and crisis management”

– Alex Barber, Frontline Leadership Expert, Frontline Sidekicks

Constantly being in crisis mode not only wastes time and resources but delays production and output.

“If you shift projects all the time, that has an impact on material delivery. Some material is arriving, but some material is missing that will block up the whole factory. It takes a lot of prioritization.”

As frontline leadership expert Alex Barber says, frontline workers bear the brunt of the impact of these problems:

“Frontline workers are the ones who feel the problems immediately at all times, especially in crisis, but probably even before that on a daily basis. They have to deal with these processes on a daily basis. And they’re also the ones who know best how to fix them.”

– Alex Barber, Frontline Leadership Expert, Frontline Sidekicks

Solutions in Times of Uncertainty

There are some active steps manufacturers can take to alleviate the negative effects of these challenges. Here’s what our panelists suggested:

1. Digitization

Heinrich Supthut, manufacturing manager at ABB and industry veteran, says that one of the ways his company has been successful at managing communications challenges is by digitizing their paper-based processes with Beekeeper.

“The good thing is that the more a process has been optimized, the more resilient it is, and that shows us a lot about the need of process automatization.”

– Heinrich Supthut, Manufacturing Manager, ABB

By digitizing and automating their paper-based safety audit process with Beekeeper, ABB employees can now enter the information in the app and immediately get an alert if something is unsafe. The group leader can focus on the situation at hand and not on how to store the information.

2. Tapping into Frontline Expertise 

Another way manufacturing companies can address challenges more efficiently is by using the practical knowledge and skills of their frontline workforce. Empowering workers to problem-solve themselves can also free up the administrative load of managers who often have a backlog of problems they have to deal with.

“It’s important that the workforce is empowered to make small decisions and do these quick wins.”

– Alex Barber, Frontline Leadership Expert, Frontline Sidekicks

3. Finding the Right Tools to Receive Feedback

Before adopting Beekeeper, the management team at ABB wondered why they were not receiving much feedback from their workers. However, after realizing that a paper-based feedback system wasn’t ideal for frontline workers, they implemented a digital solution and were overwhelmed with the amount of feedback they were receiving.

“Paper is the wrong medium for frontline workers.”

– Heinrich Supthut, Manufacturing Manager, ABB

They found that while workers had brilliant ideas, they simply weren’t comfortable writing on paper. But the ability to type on their mobile devices and the assistance of spell check was far more user-friendly.

Other solutions our panelists mentioned included:

  • Providing training programs, especially during “dead” times when there are production delays and roadblocks
  • Giving support to frontline managers in coping with stress and mental load 
  • Making it easy to communicate and access tasks on one centralized platform
  • Leadership training designed for frontline workers

Expectations & Outlook to the Future

“Future in production is people focused. I believe we have to find ways to balance white collar and blue collar and bring them together.”

– Heinrich Supthut, Manufacturing Manager, ABB

The three main takeaways from the conversation were:

  1. Resilient frontline leaders are the backbone of a manufacturing organization. Frontline workers will be the first to feel a crisis and managers will be under the highest pressure to solve it.
  2. Process automation and digitization will free up time and resources for workers to focus on know-how instead of constant crisis management. 
  3. Getting innovation and ideas directly from frontline workers. Unlocking the knowledge potential of the frontline workforce and enabling workers to accomplish small wins will create more efficiency.

Listen to the full session for more insight into how manufacturers can face communication challenges and thrive in an uncertain environment.