One of the biggest challenges when implementing any new automation system is customer ownership. Vendors, integrators and consultants alike will all tell you that working with a customer who is ready and willing to take on ownership early makes a difference to the overall project success. Many times a company is so focused on selecting the right supplier to work with as well as meeting deadlines that they forget to consider how the automation system will be managed and supported after it is up and operational.
Challenges with Material Handling Systems
Identifying System Experts and Giving Them Enough Time To Learn
It can be a challenge to identify the people who will be system experts. The best individuals are those who have an interest in learning about new automation, who understand how the system will help your business and who can readily communicate and explain that information to others. Being technical and able to troubleshoot isn’t enough. A system expert needs strong communication skills to interact with co-workers as well as with the system supplier team.
Plan to have system expert employees heavily involved in system integration testing and user training. It is impossible to quickly learn details of a new automation system and work side-by-side with your system provider while still handling 100% of current day-to-day activities. Reduce the workload of your system experts, giving them the needed time to shadow and learn from the system provider.
Senior Management Involvement
The project is approved and the contract is signed, but is senior management actively involved with the new automation system? It is critical that management takes an active role during the entire process of installing a new automation system. Employees aren’t going to buy into the changes and new processes if their leadership isn’t invested.
One of the biggest challenges with installing a new system is getting your employees to embrace and prepare for the changes. Communication is key and employees never complain about too much communication over a new system. Encourage employees to ask questions. Think about posting a question/suggestion box for employees to anonymously ask questions they may be afraid to ask otherwise. One of the greatest and most natural fears employees have with a new system is the impact to their job. Plan ahead and write up new job descriptions to clearly explain how responsibilities will be affected by the new system.
Don’t Short Cut Testing
It’s tempting. The project is running a bit behind through installation and you want to meet the scheduled go-live date so you look for longer tasks and assume you can shorten them. Bad idea! Adequate testing time with extensive test scenarios, maybe more than anything else, is critical for the success or struggle you will experience as you start up your new automation system. Fixing issues while testing is easier and does not impact your ability to deliver to your customers when issues in production can.
Don’t just test normal processing. Work through all of those exceptions you know can happen. Learn how they will be handled in your new automation system and document the processes for your standard operating procedures and troubleshooting documents. Let your employees test and practice each process to become comfortable with the steps.
The Learning Curve
You hear it over and over again about how important training is for a new system, yet time and time again it is cut short. It is important to realize that not all employees are going to immediately grasp the new processes. Use different training techniques and materials from text-based SOPs to videos to PowerPoint to hands-on training sessions in the warehouse with the automation itself. Leave enough time for employees to participate in more than one training session to gain confidence.
Be realistic in your initial processing rate expectations and understand that it takes years to get the rates and levels you have today. A new automation system can initially make a negative impact as employees come to terms with new processes at true daily volume levels.
Take ownership? Why bother?
- System suppliers and consultants can’t be on site forever to manage day-to-day operations for you. It’s important to keep resources on site to assist if there are significant equipment or software problems. Otherwise, send them on their way! Having your team ready to step up, grab the reigns and run things with confidence is true success.
- When you teach employees how to handle exceptions and troubleshoot problems early on, they gain confidence in the new system and their ability to work with it. They are less likely to express opposition to the changes and will help others to accept the new system.
- Taking ownership of your new automation system from the start will help you in getting faster and more useful assistance from the supplier and their support team. The more you know and can readily communicate about a problem or question you have about your system the easier it is for the supplier to quickly assist.
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