What Is Augmented Lean?
Published on : Thursday 10-11-2022
Augmented Lean is a human-centric framework for managing industrial operations, say Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim.
As the manufacturing industry evolves, the role of its work force also changes. Augmented Lean is our new book about getting the people/technology- dimension right in the transition to smart manufacturing. We believe what has become known as Industry4.0 is a misnomer. To be clear: this is NOT an Industry4.0 book. We have enough of those! The term may have served the purpose of pointing out that industrialization is entering a new phase with more intense interaction between technologies and where factories need to change dramatically. However, as we will get to, most accounts of Industry 4.0 are technology deterministic. That means they are overly concerned with one side of the equation and miss important qualifications. Industry4.0 overstates the role of technology, but also misunderstands its role, which is, of course, pivotal. The last few decades have not been just about fostering another industrial revolution fueled by technology. Instead, what we see is an ongoing industrial revolution to bridge the digital-physical divide, transform frontline work toward knowledge work, and foster a renaissance in manufacturing.
The notion of “waves” of technology washing over industry so workers and factories need to adapt, is misleading. In fact, thinking in terms of waves is the wrong metaphor because changes overlap and many things remain constant. Lean production, a term coined by John Krafcik (1988), who was affiliated with the MIT International Motor Vehicle Program, has always been tied to the way lean was operationalized by Toyota over 30 years ago, and it is here to stay (with some tweaks). The core insights are valid across new generations of factory technologies. It is an operational mindset, a way to run any operation well, and it has been widely adopted for good reason. Instead, the industrial challenge is to augment workers through means that empower them to not just make industrial products more efficiently.
Taking Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, relevant synonyms of augment are amplify, boost, and build up. But what we should be trying to augment is not just the quality, speed, and power of a work process. We should simultaneously be sure we are boosting each worker’s sense of worth. To do that, the technology used must be fit for the task but also fit for the person. In fact, we believe humanistic technology is the critical lynchpin for operational success.
Counter intuitively, one way to get the people-dimension in manufacturing right is through the use of software. This is counter intuitive because technology isn’t often seen as a humanizing force. However, in the last 30 years, software developments have shifted emphasis from simply improving the efficiency of task execution to extending the capability and creativity of users. Entire job functions from marketing and sales to HR and finance have been transformed by software, cloud computing, and networks as utilities that allow business users – not IT or software development professionals – to create novel solutions to the problems they face every day. Crucially, this new breed of software is generative. Generative software gives control and generativity to users and fundamentally transforms the way a given job function works.
To date, these innovations have been limited to traditionally white-collar work. And for good reason: It’s hard enough to get sales and marketing software to play nicely together. Frontline work has the added complexity of occurring in the physical world, and spanning devices and machines and software from a variety of eras and communicating over a variety of protocols. No two operations are alike. No two operations are static. Very necessary adaptations are needed before software-centric approaches can be fully deployed on the shop floor. We know, because of the work we did at MIT keeping an active dialog with industry. We then spun out core technology into the market, commercialized a frontline operations platform (called Tulip), and are now reaching industrial scale. We know this: it took us years tweaking our software to fit the most important shop floor use cases: production visibility, machine monitoring, connecting information back to systems of record, Andon lights, and, most importantly, dynamic work instructions, knowledge apps, and real-time quality detection dashboards that directly augment the frontline worker.
The road to zero-training-required interfaces in industry is a long one, but we are on the journey. What won’t go away so fast is the fact that building a business process requires deductive logic, being aware of what inputs matter, which transformations would be useful, how to use data to achieve them, and what kind of output is required.
The front runners in industry are embarking on an era building on the lessons of lean, but beyond simple automation, making use of agile and iterative collaboration principles, and so much more than digital lean if that only means Lean + Digital “on top.” This new era of software driven manufacturing will favor manufacturers that are able to manage complexity by embracing a new breed of software-driven manufacturing. New, adaptive technologies encourage decentralized decision making and flexible operations yet maintain the ability for manufacturing engineers, and senior management, to carry out connected problem solving. Why? Because they have access to complete real-time data about the essential aspects of production (Mirandette 2019). Those who do so will have a sustained competitive advantage over industry laggards clinging to the twentieth-century notion of a centrally controlled and executed operation. In our vision, frontline operations will support any shared, interoperable, functional form factor that improves human work performance.
Augmented Lean is a human-centric framework for managing industrial operations. Welcome to the era of bare bone human cognitive augmentation, where fewer special tech skills or complex gadgets are required. For sure, other skills, including the ability to interact with machines and sensors are required.
Work is neither dangerous, nor dull, nor dirty. Work might be automated, but never without meaning, metrics, and context. With plug-and-play components from your neighborhood electronics store and a more than average clear head you can become an augmented frontline worker whose career opportunities are promising. Subscribing to a new stack of cloud-based software that integrates no-code aspects, a manufacturer, regardless of size and scope, can become an innovator with very little sunk cost. An operator without a software degree can become an app developer and create lasting efficiencies. Because of the groundwork made by frontline operations platforms, simple steps you take can now bridge the cyber-physical divide. All that’s required is a learning mindset and being adaptable to change. We live in exciting times, where simplification is in sight, but where the details on how to make headway, are still complex.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations by Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim. Copyright © 2023 by Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.