Unlocking the Intelligent Industry Through Leadership

In recent years, the manufacturing industry has gone through a drastic period of digital transformation, centred around automation. You just have to look at the shopfloor, for example, to see how far they have got in this journey. Yet while all this technology has become a driving force within the industry, it’s not what makes it tick – rather it’s people’s creativity through which true innovation is achieved. The challenge for manufacturing companies, therefore, lies in fostering an organisational culture which allows this creativity to grow, which demands a dynamic shift in leadership styles.


Automation as a design enabler

When people think of automation, they tend to focus on how it can help maximise efficiency in terms of streamlining tasks, cutting out waste and speeding up production. And while this has certainly had a significant impact on reducing the resources a manufacturer needs, automation actually presents a far greater opportunity for engineers and managers alike in terms of how they make use of their data to significantly improve the employee work experience and enable their creativity.

Identifying what customers want is no longer a guessing game, but it does rely on the analysis of a huge set of real-world data, not only to better understand the market as a whole, but also to establish what’s actually physically possible when designing that perfect solution. This process can be extremely time consuming, and often design engineers end up spending a lot of their time performing mundane administrative tasks and trawling through data versus coming up with new ideas and solutions.

Through automation, this data can be interpolated into discreet points, simulating what’s possible and providing clear areas of design to explore. As a result, engineers can spend more time doing what they do best – problem solving. With automation doing the initial analysis, the process of generating and testing new ideas is not only accelerated but freed from personal or organisational biases that might have otherwise crept in during human analysis. Consequently, alleviating this burden of admin also better enables the inherent creativity within the design process.

However, these benefits can only be unlocked if there is already a firmly established culture of creativity within the organisation – which becomes the real challenge for leadership.


Igniting the spark of creativity

At the end of the day we aren’t making products for computers; we make them for people – so the human element within the industry is fundamental. Automation and algorithms can point you towards a range of creative options, but true creativity doesn’t come from a computer. It’s comes from people exploring and connecting different ideas together, based on real life needs, to create successful innovation. But ideas don’t appear from nowhere, they are born through collaboration and nurtured in an environment where employees feel confident in exploring new possibilities.

In this sense, the greatest barrier to creativity is the fear of failure, which drives people to take very conservative and linear approaches to problem solving. It encourages employees to follow the pattern of ‘this is what has worked before, so this is what I’ll do again’. Without the support from leadership to break this pattern, a culture of creativity is unlikely to flourish. People need to not only be allowed to make mistakes but be encouraged to do so. Learning through failure has a profound impact on confidence and unlocking unseen capabilities and it’s a leader’s responsibility to empower their people to try new things and celebrate when this happens, even if they don’t work out. In doing so, employees are made to feel safe to explore new possibilities without judgement.

While such possibilities may seem radical, it’s important to remember that not so long ago the idea of having a supercomputer in your back pocket was deemed impossible, yet now so many of us own smartphones. As technology develops, these ideas can become a reality, so leaders must remove the shackles of fear holding their workers back from asking the bigger ‘what if?’ questions.


Nurturing collective creativity

Once employees feel empowered to explore new ideas, the next challenge becomes getting them to share those ideas with one another. When people come together and bounce ideas around, that’s when creativity really takes off. But the key to unlocking the true potential of collaboration again lies in leadership embracing greater diversity among its workforce. As different ideas and ways of thinking compete against each other, new ways of working and approaching a problem can emerge. By encouraging this, leaders are able to generate a new organisational culture where employees are challenged and empowered to let their creativity flourish.

As humans, we’re incredibly inventive and adaptive, as our response to the pandemic has proven. And the rapid digital transformation across the industries we work in didn’t just come from introducing automation, it was from our ability to approach new problems in abstract ways. That creativity is the value that employees bring, irreplaceable by automation. And that creativity is what leadership must now learn how to tap into if they want to continue to drive meaningful and tangible innovation post-pandemic and beyond.


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