Attention on Automation

The Weekly Report – March 11, 2024
The promise of automation depends on getting it right.

Type the word “automation” in Enterprise Minnesota’s website search box and you’ll find dozens of references to workshops, articles, Weekly Reports, and State of Manufacturing® survey highlights. We cover automation frequently, and have another feature on the topic, “Automation Is About People,” in the spring issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine, out this week.

We emphasize automation because there’s no better way to respond to persistent challenges caused by the worker shortage. Automated processes can accomplish tedious, labor-intensive tasks, freeing time for employees to engage in more interesting, fulfilling, and productive efforts. Automation also boosts employee engagement, productivity, profits, and customer satisfaction.

Our latest article draws on the combined experience of Eric Blaha and Ally Johnston, two of our top continuous improvement experts.

A big takeaway from the article is that the value of automation stems from the work manufacturers do to prepare for automation. “If we just start automating, we will automate waste and poor processes,” Johnston says. She and Blaha encourage manufacturers to implement automation in the context of lean management, communication, and employee involvement.

They recommend a process captured in the acronym VESSA: Value stream, Eliminate waste, Simplify, Standardize, and Automate. When they put automation measures in place, they reap tremendous benefits.

“Going through VESSA gives us the strategy and tools to automate well,” Johnston says. “On paper you go from V to E to S to S to A, but realistically you bounce around. They are all very connected.”

The steps in VESSA build on each other. Value stream mapping conveys a strategy and employs tools to help employees see both value and waste in processes. Once they learn to see waste, employees can try different methods to eliminate it. Blaha offers six key principles of error-proofing that simplify processes prior to automating. The final step before automating is standardizing; maintaining consistent processes that are repeatable by all employees. That means setting up a very robust process using lean thinking.

Blaha and Johnston say the final step in VESSA, automation, must be followed by sharing results with employees and engaging them for the next round of automation. Just sharing outcomes isn’t enough, Blaha says, noting the importance of celebrating with employees and soliciting feedback. He recommends using some of the return on investment gained from automation to invest in facilities — an updated break room for example — to build goodwill.

Read the full article here, and register for Eric Blaha’s May 30 automation workshop in Hutchinson here.

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