Prasad Akella, Drishti’s founder and CEO, recently interviewed Andy Luse, associate partner at McKinsey & Company. The conversation covered digital transformation, identifying workers who thrive on the factory floor, McKinsey’s digital coaching through its Capabilities Centers network and the impacts of coronavirus. This is the first of three installments; we jumped in just as Prasad and Andy were discussing workers on the floor, the importance of wanting to feel pride in your work, and how manufacturers can help foster job satisfaction that benefits workers and the company.

Prasad Akella: The other element is the satisfaction element. There’s a natural human emotion where you want to go home feeling, “I did a good job.”

Andy Luse: I think you’re right. There’s a very unfair bias in some industries that workers are lazy. Or workers don’t want to do a good job. And I have found that to be completely false in all my interactions with factory workers, workers on the front line of plants. I find that overwhelmingly they really do want to do a good job and get a lot of pride out of doing their job well and helping their companies succeed. And often they’re not given the tools, the feedback, the support that enables them to do their job optimally. And that’s incredibly frustrating to the workers.

Prasad Akella: We call them the brilliant outliers. There’s always that creative person on the plant floor who comes up with a better “best practice.” Number one, how do you recognize the improvement in the best practice? How do you personally recognize them? And how do you build career paths for these people? 

You sit in the white collar workforce at McKinsey with 14 other partners who say, okay, is Andy good or bad, do I promote him to be director and then managing director or whatever the hierarchy is? Meanwhile Joe and John and Peter on the plant floor, who knows who these guys are? 

Andy Luse: The first thing I always do when we start a new support program for a manufacturing client is figure out first of all, how do we interview, talk to all the people on the front line? Because, as you said, they know what’s going on and they have the best ideas typically. Number two, how do you involve them in the solution? How can they co-create the next improvement project for the plant? Showing that you care you can get a ton of buy-in, and that’s what leads to results. They’re the people that are actually driving productivity.

Prasad Akella: It’s interesting, the Toyota Production System (TPS) is very clear that you build everybody around the front line. In our company I tell everybody that we all work for the head of sales. You can build the best product, that’s fine, but if you can’t sell it, we can all go home. It’s the same thing: the notion that the entire company is behind that front-line associate. That’s the central thesis of the Toyota Production System. 

You said it very well. You can co-create, that’s the core concept here, co-creation. Our thesis is that sometimes you need the data to co-create with. You’re trying to move it from “My belief, my instinct, my something,” to actual data that you put in front of someone and say, let’s move this.

Andy Luse: Think how many times a front-line worker has had an idea to solve a problem but has struggled to convince management or show the business case. Now with data collection through various tools and solutions such as yours it’s very clear and you can easily quantify a problem or identify a root cause and come up with a solution.

Prasad Akella: We got a call from a customer and a gentleman on the line had an idea and went to the line supervisor and said, “Hey, I have an idea, do you want to pull that data up?” And they co-created, to steal your phrase there, and essentially they stress-tested the idea of using the data and went back and sold it and they made the process change. So that is a victory. And it was so exciting for them that they could actually effect change.

And the second was an interesting example where, typically in the supply network, when the company above you in the hierarchy — the OEM, tier one, whoever else — calls and says you sent me a defective product, there is no defense. You just have to suck it up and pay for it. They had an instance where a defective product was called out, these guys went back to the tapes, played the tapes and said, “Nope, we did it right.” They sent the tapes back, and there’s a victory lap sort of on the plant floor because, “We are doing our jobs.” This notion of pride that you were talking about. 

It’s very nice to hear you articulate that because you live on the plant floor, as well. Our mission statement, which we came up with very early in the days, “Enhancing human performance in an increasingly automated world.” Because if you think about it, I think man and machine together give us the best output. Curious what your take on that is having spent the time in these lighthouse plants and having looked at manufacturing these years.

Andy Luse: It’ll be a very long time before all the intelligence decision-making can be automated. I think one of the things that we actually pointed out in the McKinsey Global Institute Report that you referenced is that there are lots of pieces of jobs that can be automated, but it’s actually quite difficult in many cases to automate an entire job. And so it’s exactly what you said, it’s that interaction of the data, the technology, with the human decision-maker that leads to positive results. 

Prasad Akella: You know I hadn’t framed it up quite that way but I couldn’t agree more with you. If we think about RPA and things of that sort, my worldview is that what AI does for us is it automates chores, and it looks at tens of thousands of data points and focuses my attention on the ten that matter. It might even give me some insights into the ten that matter by saying they’re statistical outliers or I’m seeing high variability in the third step on the fourth station. I think the final decision-making is still the human being and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for another hundred years.  

Andy Luse: Let’s just say, at least longer than 2035.

Prasad Akella: Yes, certainly longer than 2035. It’s funny because when I was raising money back in 2016, the question asked of me was, “Isn’t this all going to be automated?” I said, “My Ph.D. thesis was in building robotic hands. My thesis was written in 1992, so this is 30 years later. I still don’t see much change in that world. So when those bits meet the atoms, the atoms are very hard to manipulate. And we’ve taken the easy stuff — ecommerce all, the stuff you can automate, we’ve automated the crap out of it — but when it comes down to atoms, we are not there yet. 

Andy Luse: I am writing that down. It’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase, but it’s brilliant. Spot on.

Prasad Akella: I’m going to rip “co-create” and you’re going to rip “bits and atoms” from me.