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Davos Takeaways: How To Get Beyond Risk, Resilience, And Rigor In Manufacturing–and Why We Need To Rethink Workforce Skills

The 2022 World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland wrapped up last week without the big announcements but leaving me with a sense of surprising resolve. This despite the triple challenge of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the climate meltdown, and COVID-19, which are lingering over markets and shaping the possibilities for collaboration.

The annual event, recognized for bringing together high-profile public and private sector leaders, still illustrates what leaders must do in a crisis–lead, inspire, and persevere. For manufacturers, this means building a stronger partnership between workers and managers to shore up innovation and resilience at the same time. The main tool to do so, surprisingly, is not just by using any advanced technology but by building trust through technologies that empower.

Manufacturing has fared surprisingly well in each of these crises. Supply chains didn’t fully break down but long-term effects are coming if we don’t transform them, sustainability actions are being implemented even in asset-heavy industries, and COVID-19 vaccine production and medical supplies are going strong, proving the value of several key public-private partnerships.

My role at Davos this year was to chart the future of manufacturing, with a particular focus on frontline industrial workers. I attended several of the sessions of the Platform for Shaping the Future of Advanced Manufacturing and Value Chains. The platform’s partners comprise the world’s 1000 leading companies, developing solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. We are a growing community of 200+ organizations from more than 22 industry sectors, governments, academic institutions and civil society. Two of the companies I’ve co-founded, frontline operations platform Tulip, and Formlabs, the pioneer and industry leader in professional desktop 3D printing, are active members.

Among these activities, I’m particularly enthusiastic about our work at The Augmented Workforce Initiative. The key question we try to tackle is, how can companies and governments scale the use of technologies to augment, empower and upskill the factory workforce? The short answer is that it can best be accomplished by using technologies that augment the worker, and not technologies that simply automate a process for efficiency.

In Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, my co-author Trond Arne Undheim and I chart a new management framework for this important challenge. Lean is a concept or way of thinking that focuses on eliminating waste and streamlining processes to save time, space, materials and money. For years now, we have sought to do this through machine efficiency. However, that has not worked so well, because machines don’t (yet) innovate. Until then, executives need a management framework that prioritizes humans over machines. When you empower your frontline workers, you are investing in their growth, productivity, and loyalty. Increased efficiency of your machines is just a side effect.

Augmented Lean management builds on a set of distinct human traits (a hacking mentality), organizational enablement (tools, techniques, technologies), leadership mindset (augment, decentralize, and empower), and systemic awareness (understanding-and respecting-all levels of the system). These traits and functions are not given, and as surely as they have emerged, each will keep changing. However, one thing is for sure: operators (rather than executives) are at the center of the organization building new Augmented Lean practices.

Beyond top-down risk, resilience, and rigor

Organizations of the past have been top down and have doubled down on rigor as a way to achieve efficiency and scale. Manufacturing already requires taking a reasonable amount of risk (making estimates on future demand), resilience (as global events occur or client attitudes evolve), and rigor (sticking to a strategy even though surprises play out). All of this worked fine (for executives and bottom lines) in past industrial eras, but never worked out well for the workforce or for society. The path forward, however, is one where deep cooperation between the workforce and the management team assures alignment.

Supply chains of the future will be both simpler, shorter, and simultaneously more complex and diversified, and will need to combine just-in-time with just-in-case as a matter of strategy. Factories of the future will perhaps not be places as much as spheres of influence and systems of engagement. The frontline workforce of the future will be fluid, ever-changing, and highly skilled without the luxury of ever going off site just to “learn.” If you don’t learn, you die.

This cannot be achieved without planning, without digital systems that can adapt on a dime, and without workers who are skilled to take on whatever challenge the world throws at them. Reskilling cannot be a chore, it must be a joy. How to accomplish that? Through using technologies, management frameworks, and incentives that augment the workforce, building their strengths organically, naturally, and day-to-day. Managers of the future won’t be asking for degrees but for skills. Those skills cannot be developed during expensive offsites, in people’s spare time, or in years of schooling.

Skills evolve through apprenticeships with your work reality and through behavioral triggers that reinforce skilled capabilities and craftsmanship. The methods will change but knowing distinct crafts and thinking three steps ahead will be more important than ever before.

We might be moving into an era of advanced manufacturing, but the way to implement it is through inserting as much simplicity as possible. The jobs to be done should be straightforward. The instructions should be just-in-time, adapting to the worker on a particular shift. The factory floor should be ergonomically designed and allow hybrid workers to plug in remotely, should allow small-and-medium enterprises to contribute seamlessly because all interfaces are standardized, and should require as little forced management as possible. All around, the trust we build into our production process will be what allows us to remain flexible when things change. True technological progress lies in being fluid, not in sticking to outdated rigor. Why? Because the future is far from rigid and risk already comes with the territory. Augmented Lean is a powerful way to drive in that direction.