Adopting Automation and Change Management: What to Expect and How to be Prepared

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Successfully adopting material handling automation means successfully implementing change management.

Automation change management

The growth of automation in modern supply chains, especially in the US, is unprecedented.  The influx of more smaller orders, more unique products in inventory, more valued-added services, more reverse logistics, with less available and reliable labor, less time to process an order, and less margin for error are all driving initiatives to increase productivity, increase cube utilization, increase flexibility, and increase scalability. When designed, planned for, implemented and managed properly, automation can address these initiatives.

This is not news hot off the press. The end benefits of automation are well documented. However, what is less frequently discussed, is the journey an organization inherently undertakes when adopting automation in their supply chain operations.

Automation and Complex Change

Whether its automating the picking process with goods-to-person (GTP) technology or the pack-and-ship process with tapers and print and apply, the path to a successful automation implementation can be seamless and smooth for some organizations, but also, prolonged and strenuous for others. Having been part of large automation implementation projects myself, witnessing both sides of the spectrum, it’s clear that project success is closely related to the organization’s ability to understand, plan for, and manage complex change.

Let’s face it, automated material handling systems are naturally complex; thus, complex organizational change is required to effectively implement and manage these systems. Understanding all the areas and people in the organization that will be affected, directly and indirectly, by the project is the first step in achieving success.

Avoid Common Pitfalls when Adopting Automation

Even with the rapid growth of automation in the industry, chances are your next automation project is going to be your first. Regardless of industry or scale of operation, there are common falsehoods organizations maintain before and during automation projects that should be avoided.

  1. The Easy Button – One common belief organizations have is that someone can press the ‘Easy Button’ and simply install, turn on, sit back and watch the automation solution rain savings dollars from the ceiling. While this sounds swell, there is no ‘easy button folks’. Generally speaking, all automation requires on-going training, management, monitoring and fine-tuning.
  2. Not Understanding Complex Change – With automation comes great change affecting not only the physical make-up of the distribution center, but also the psychological and socioeconomic factors that govern your operation.  It needs to be understood that the change associated with automation is as much personal and emotional change as it is an operational one.
  3. Beware of Forcing Change – Are people naturally resistant to change? In my experience, no. More so, people are resistant to change if they believe there is no benefit to changing. Beware of trying to force change on your operations, rather, manage the complex change that automation will bring.

How to be Prepared when Adopting Automation

While the model below was not created for managing complex change in a supply chain operation, the underlying principles still apply. The diagram attempts to illustrate the emotional state of people when necessary components that drive change are lacking. To loosely apply the principles in this diagram as it relates to being prepared for the implementation of automation in your operations, I’ve outlined some key areas of focus to consider.

Complex Change Management and Material Handling Automation

Source: The Managing Complex Change model was copyrighted by Dr. Mary Lippitt, founder and president of Enterprise Management, Ltd., in 1987.

Define a Strategy & Action Plan

To avoid confusion, it’s important to keep in mind that without a strategy, people don’t know where they’re going and without an action plan people know where to go but don’t know how to get there. Develop an all-encompassing strategy of dates, responsibilities and check lists for managing the change automation will bring to your organization.

Create Top to Bottom ‘Buy in’ within your Organization

To avoid resistance to change, the entire operation needs to be invested in the project. Leverage the organizational strengths and corporate message to promote the reasons why automation is being implemented into the operation. Use incentive or recognition programs to encourage employees to embrace the changes.

Establish Effective and Constant Communication

To avoid unnecessary frustration, effective communication must be established. From senior management to floor operators, everyone needs to be marching to the beat of the same drum. We often see situations where the last people to be informed and consulted on operational changes are the operation managers and operators themselves!

Create Ownership & Responsibility

To avoid self-inflicted obstacles and time delays, ownership and responsibility must be established. Whether it is management, inventory control or the operators themselves, everyone must know their role in the project. Without ownership and clearly defined responsibilities, expect holes in coverage and clusters of focus.

Develop a Thorough Training Program

At least for now, people ultimately manage complex automated systems. To avoid apprehension and frustration, create a thorough and encouraging training plan that ensures employees are comfortable and knowledgeable about their roles as it relates to the automation.

Manage Expectations

Last, but not least, manage your expectations. Naturally, there are going to be unexpected obstacles to overcome and every aspect of the project will not go as exactly as planned. Avoid making assumptions or developing pre-conceived notions about the outcome of the project. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Conclusions

The benefits of adopting automation in your supply chain operation are well documented and supported by the rapid growth in the industry over recent years. While the journey can be bumpy for some organizations, it doesn’t need to be. Proper planning and change management approaches are essential in achieving success in your next automation project. We have discussed some common pitfalls to avoid when adopting automation in your operation as well as reviewed some topics related to how you can be better prepared.

Is Your Organization Prepared?

If your organization is embarking on a journey to adopt automation, a key question you should be asking is, ‘are we prepared?’ With years of project implementation experience, Bastian Solutions will help ensure your organization achieves success in your next automation implementation.

Learn more about our consulting and project execution services, or contact us today.

JD Stumpf
As a senior consulting engineer with Bastian Solutions, based out of Denver, CO, I work closely with clients on the design and implementation of innovative automated material handling solutions that improve customer service and reduce operational inefficiencies in fulfillment processes. I began my career at Bastian Solutions in 2014 in our software group as an Operations Engineer implementing the latest Goods-to-Person picking technologies. I currently support consulting engagement clients looking to implement new automated solutions as well as existing Bastian Solution’s clients seeking optimization of operational processes.

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