by Lauren Hisey

By the end of last year (2020), COVID put many organizations' Digital Transformation plans on the fast track. While there was a need to adapt quickly to the situation everyone was dealt with, did Digital Transformation plans need to be rushed? While different forms of technology fixed an immediate problem, was it safe to say that true transformation happened? Weren't these quick fixes just fixing things now instead of honestly thinking about the long-term? I often wonder whether the change is just fixing the immediate issues or strategically looking into the future. While we need to be nimble and quickly adjust, we also need to watch the future.

Everyone is rushing to get the new "flashy" tools thinking it will fix all the problems. They are not taking the time to understand what is going on. Time and time again, I see organizations throwing AI (Artificial Intelligence) or RPA (robotic process automation) at a "problem" without understanding what is going on or causing it. Many of my clients fall into this trap. My clients have lost momentum, low adaption rates, and non-existent ROI in their Digital Transformation. There is a disconnect that is often overlooked with these transformations. While you can't predict the future, you need to slow down to understand genuine business problems. Slowing down will help you better adapt to current situations and ensure your strategic plans are still relevant for the future. You will understand what is missing.

Often the gap between the manual and RPA or AI processes is the people and the culture. During the Kettering Financial Special Interest Group in August 2021, Anthony Roman (Vice President – Talent Acquisition, Southeast at RGP) stated "that you need people and talent to make things work. People are the gas to the business engine." Without the people and the culture, you do not have the wheels of a business. What most often forget is that technology is just a piece of the puzzle.

Of course, with all of the buzzwords of AI, Machine Learning, and RPA, many believe that is something brand new. Modern AI can be traced back to classical philosophers, and the word "automation" is nothing new! Sakichi Toyoda developed that auto-activated loom in 1924 that automatically detected when there was a problem with the loom. Did you know that this was the use of "automation"? Toyoda developed a way to ensure that the problem was fixed before the product was finished to ensure it had quality before it got to the customer.

Within Lean and the Toyota Production System (TPA), there is a term called "Jidoka" or "autonomation." Jidoka is used to describe intelligent Automation. Toyoda used it when he developed the auto-activated loom.

The central concept with Jidoka is to:

1. Detect the problem

2. Stop production

3. Fix it

4. Understand why it happens and develop measures to fix the problem from happening again.

By stopping and fixing the problem right there allows for any other defects from occurring. In the end, this produces a quality product that enables the customer to use it right away. The concept reduces waiting and rework, a non-value, and keeps the company from paying for the mistakes. It produces a quality product (or service) a customer will want. It also allows for the investigation to help correct the problem from happening further. In the end, you have better processes without a lot of waste, less non-value add, and a quality product/service.

With Jidoka, we can see that while the Automation is "intelligent" enough to stop the problem, it is not cost-effective for the machine to figure out what went wrong. Shigeo Shingo described how there are twenty-three stages from manual to fully automated work. While the "machines" in the TPS can detect the issues, the people with human intelligence fix the problem. The human, culture, leadership, and machines in the production system make things work cohesively. The devices cannot do all of the work, but they sure make things easier for people! The same concept applies when using AI and RPA.

So if Lean and TPS put the humans back into the machines, why can't we put the humans back into technology? I've always said that Lean puts the human back into technology. Some of my clients want to implement some RPA or AI into their businesses without taking the proper steps to implement them. Some have even implemented the new "flashy" tools to realize that it's not working as planned. Either the adaption rate is meager, the process has become worse, or the customer experience has become horrible. What if all three occasions happen? I've seen it happen, and it has caused a loss in revenue, high costs, unhappy employees, and lost customers.

Many do not realize that the gap between manual processes and automated or AI processes is the people and the culture! Instead of thinking that the new "flashy" tools will fix the problems, we need to think about the whole system instead of just one piece of the puzzle.

So if Lean and TPS put the humans back into the machines, why can't we put the humans back into technology?

Instead of thinking that one tool will fix things, we need to think in a toolbox approach with Continuous Improvement and AI. If you are missing one piece of the puzzle, things will not work cohesively. In an environment with the Great Resignation going on, employees are leaving for many different reasons. Everything is changing at a faster pace, and people want more than just work. It needs to be asked why they are leaving and what is the difference between the companies. With seasoned employees leaving, the gap between the manual process and the automated process becomes significant. You are not able to do one without the other. Even if technology is helping with the gap, it does not fully solve the problem. RPA and AI can help, but you still need the people to make things work. For everything to work cohesively, you need to think about Continuous Improvement and AI as a whole system together.

By combining Lean Six Sigma, Culture, AI, and People, you create a whole system that fits nicely together. It's not about being linear; it's all about being circular. The pieces are working and moving together to create a system that produces successful quality products or services, happy employees, and satisfied customers. You can't just replace people with "machines." We need to change our thinking to fix the gap that is often experienced within these transformations.

To develop business resilience, you need to learn to adapt to this fast-changing world. We need to stop pushing so fast to get to the end, learn to enjoy the journey, and create a cohesive system first. It's not always how quickly we can get to the future; it is about finding the actual problems and solving them. We need to go from thinking the " flashy new tool" will fix all the business problems to learning to solve the real issues. It's about thinking strategically finding the correct path forward to success.


Lauren Hisey is not your typical consultant or coach. She uses a calming influence, Continuous Improvement, Lean Six Sigma, AI knowledge through regular conversations to help create effective change within any business. Lauren helps businesses to improve profitability and culture to drive sustainable growth. She has spent 13 years living and breathing Continuous Improvement as a coach, consultant, trainer, and speaker with different sizes businesses, universities, podcasts, and various networking associations. She has a passion for Continuous Improvement and loves to show others how to use it effectively in their businesses and personal life.

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