Digitizing the Process Landscape

Digitization of the Process landscape

What we can learn from paper and pencil

Author: Dr. Margit Sarstedt


Digitization, IT solutions, process automation – that this is now coming, this statement is long outdated. Because it’s already in place – and it works – or not? The introduction of digital systems, especially in manufacturing companies, often presents difficulties. But are these really difficulties with the digital systems themselves, or rather difficulties with the logical order of the process flows? What do we have to do? Let’s take a closer look.


Digitization of workflows

Many workflows and business processes have grown over the years. They work – somehow – since all obstacles in the original processes have been detected over time, being replaced by flexibly working substitutes. Historically grown like a beautiful old city in Europe. However, these working solutions are not optimized, often quite the contrary. Everywhere there is disarray, there are blockages, whole subject areas get lost.  

But also process flows planned on the drawing board are soon subject to the changes of time. Side trails appear, different structural ideas come up, and some hill requires winding paths to get around. And exactly that happens with the perfectly planned business processes. As soon as the standardized processes of ready-made solutions are applied to a company, exceptions and deviations begin to take hold.

Here, at the latest, it becomes clear that the introduction of digital processes is not so easy. After all, if real-world events depend on daily creative solutions on a small scale, then how should these be translated into digitally coded processes? How should one give the business processes a firm corset? One might almost think that the demand for agility and the demand for digitization are standing in each other’s way. But both have their justification, both need to be considered. So the task is clear, the solution has to be worked out.

Digitization – let's take a look at how not to do it

1. Introduction of a "perfect" standardized digital process landscape, without prior analysis of the long-standing actual processes – following the dictum "people should simply adjust to the new ways".

   This first of the two wrong approaches not only leads to frustration among employees, but also forces the agile-flourishing business to play a minor role towards the coded and thus rigid processes.

2. Precise and detailed stocktaking of the actual processes – following the dictum "IT experts should simply encode it exactly as it is practiced".

   This second of the two wrong approaches leads to all the old detours and replacement processes now being literally cemented in digital form and thus any further process improvement is made impossible.

So how do we approach a sensible solution?

To begin with, I would like to express my true belief: Business processes in manufacturing companies are NOT a matter for IT. Nor are they a matter of finance, or of development, or any other highly specialized subject area. For the holistic view of a company is usually not one of the core competencies of these respective experts.

From their basic character, business process matters are therefore responsibility of the respective management at all levels. This because of the bird's eye view, which is needed for recognizing the inter-connectedness of all, and because of the strategic questions hidden in such integrative view.

To gain clarity about a new target structure for a company, I recommend the following four basic questions:

1.   What are the machines doing?

2.   What are the people doing?

3.   How does the material flow?

4.   How does information flow?

Easy? Not really!

Let's take a look at the simple example of a production worker refilling consumables at a plant.

   What are the machines doing?

-> Processing of the material within the actual value chain step
-> Automated message on refill of material
-> Then later the ok message

   What are the people doing?

-> Take material out of warehouse, inventory entry
-> Operation of the refill mechanism of the machine
-> Disposal of the empty containers of the material
-> Ready message of the maintenance order

   How does the material flow?

-> Automated from the high-bay warehouse to the removal station
-> Manually on a carriage to the machine
-> Automated within the machine to the processing point

   How does information flow?

-> Data transfer from machine to central MES system
-> From MES system via visual output to the foreman
-> From the foreman orally to the employee
-> From the employee to the data system manually

And hidden therein are still many more elusive details (e. g. something is different on machine A than on machine B). The employees at the plant know it, but nowhere is it written down – that sounds familiar? Yes, that's what makes it so difficult. And how much more comprehensive are the processes in a fiscal year planning, for example!

On the IT side, analyzed and modeled in detail, this leads to millions of use cases. And with every new case, more confusion arises in the programming and also in the subsequent application. Therefore, I am convinced that it must first be decided at management level in which depth of detail digitization should take effect. Guidelines for this decision are the two questions: (1) which variability should be specifically restricted, and (2) where the agile action of humans should be preserved.

In my experience …

… this only works if a fundamental understanding of these questions is created throughout the workforce. 

The initiative, as described above, must come from management, where decisions must be taken and, most importantly, responsibly owned. However, everyone involved contributes to the overall picture. The motivation comes from understanding the goals, and it rises with a playful approach to gain insight into the own work environment.

Why playful? Time and again I have made the experience that reducing the complexity to a clear simulated world, a play-ground, is essential for a proper analysis of the interconnected work processes. It triggers all those aha experiences which are necessary to create a common understanding of the work and information flows. In seminars and workshops, I like to work with easy-to-grasp things, with tangible models, slow-running simulations, with paper and pencil, to play through and simulate the real processes. Because the basis always lies in the logical connection of the processes.

Later-on, the realization of digitization "only" makes the processes faster and allows handling of large amounts of data, but the logical concept must be clear in advance. In preparation for digitization it is imperative to ensure that the logical flow in the "overall world" – in all four aspects listed above – is consistent, so that the resulting digital "sub-world" will also be consistent. Properly applied, one has then created a tool-kit that does not prevent but supports human agility in the automated world. Substitute processes will only come to an end when the main processes have been correctly designed and openly allow for agile action.

My conclusion on digitization in manufacturing companies

  • Take the opportunity of digitization to really shed light on the whole of your business processes and to reconfigure them.
  • Do not put this work into the hands of IT, but use the overall view of the hierarchy levels; review and handle the processes from top to bottom.
  • Do not limit your business by inflexible automated processes, but plan the processes holistically, including the human process steps.
  • In seminars and workshops you simulate the real work processes in a playful way, with paper and pencil, and watch what happens.
  • Then make your decisions about the useful depth of detail of the digitization and process automation; only then should the digital implementation take place.