“I don’t get it. We introduced cutting-edge technology into a production line in order to handle a recurring product quality issue we have there. The plant manager was interested, we assigned a dedicated project manager to lead this project, we demonstrated that the technology works and still - two weeks into the pilot project, we find that someone turned the technology off and no one really cares about this or enforces its use. Management says it wants innovation but when innovation is introduced, managers aren’t truly committed”.
I’m having a discussion with an open innovation manager for an international food manufacturing company. If we pay close attention to what was said in this single conversation, we will identify what most organizations focus on when attempting to deploy technology and also what they usually miss while causing detrimental consequences to their ability of deploying cutting-edge technology.
In this article, I will cover the most common mistakes established organizations make when looking into the possible deployment of a technology that is relatively new, perhaps unproven, having a limited track record or proven in other use cases than the one at hand. Organizations know how to handle the evaluation and procurement of proven shelf products. With regards to cutting-edge technology, however, a different approach is needed and this is why so many well-funded and well-intentioned organizations have tried and failed.
“We demonstrated that the technology works”
When established organizations try to deploy a technology, their immediate focus is on demonstrating that it works in the field. However, this causes a couple of problems. The first one is that the focus should be on demonstrating value first and only then functionality. At the end of the day, demonstrating a painful problem that will be solved assuming the technology works allows us to make much better decisions on which technologies to focus on. As impressive as a technology may be, if it isn’t going to solve a truly painful problem for us then why even bother and invest time and effort in its demonstration?
Start with a painful problem that the organization (in this case the plant management team) will be willing to make an effort in deploying because any deployment requires a concerted effort. The second problem this functionality-oriented approach causes is that when the goal is to demonstrate that the technology works, it requires a higher level of effort to do. For example, if we want to demonstrate that a technology can analyze certain business records and come up with insights then we have to handle IT security opposing the deployment of startup technology and granting it access to databases inside the firewall and the data privacy team opposing the sharing of personal data that is included in those business records. The moment we make this a focused problem we are solving (e.g. identify business transactions of a certain type suspected as fraudulent) is when we can come up with a scheme where anonymized, historical data is generated and provided to the startup for analysis in order to test that it can identify the specific cases of transactions suspected as fraudulent. The ability to do so on live data and for additional cases can be delayed for later stages if we can solve a very painful problem first.
“The plant manager was interested”
The deployment of startup technology into established organizations almost always requires an executive sponsor who is engaged and committed to the effort and the obstacles that will surely present themselves along the way. The plant manager shouldn’t have just said he was ‘interested’ in this opportunity but committed to having this pilot project reviewed as part of the plant weekly management sessions and to personally sponsor it. I never met a manager who said she didn’t want innovation. However, innovation has a cost of executive time and attention span and that is why we want them ‘committed’ and not just ‘interested’.
“We assigned a dedicated project manager”
Assigning a project manager to a technology pilot project is only half the job. Since these projects tend to be much more tumultuous than typical ones, the project leaders that are required here should be much more committed. In the particular case above, once the technology was turned off the project manager became disengaged and blamed the plant management team for not being committed enough. A project leader with a more entrepreneurial spirit would have understood that this was simply part of the experience of deploying startup technology into organizations and would have kept on dealing with it. We have to make sure that the person driving the project was somehow involved in the inception of the idea to use this technology to solve the problem and that they have the tools and guidance to do this with an entrepreneurial approach.
“Two weeks into the pilot project, we find that someone turned the technology off”
Whenever deploying a new technology into an established organization we should ask ourselves whose work lives are going to change as a result of this technology. Once we identify these stakeholders, we have to ask ourselves whether they have the skill and the motivation to cooperate with this change because if they don’t then we will experience what we call at Spyre “A lack of Operational fit - the silent killer of innovation”. In the case above, the line operators were the ones who turned the technology off. Apparently, they were measured based on product output and the technology deployed was making sure the produced products had no flaws in them. Whenever a faulty product was identified, the line would stop and the operator was now expected to perform a new task which was to walk up to the line and remove the faulty items. Since line operators weren’t measured for quality issues and line stoppages actually caused output to decrease, we find that they had negative motivation to change their behavior and thus, simply turned the technology off. What could have been done differently? Management could have added a procedure where a faulty product that reaches consumers would be traced back to the operator that was on the shift that produced it. It could have had plant management enforce the use of the technology. It could have added a mechanism that would automatically reject faulty products from the line thereby avoiding stoppages. The fact that intelligent and capable people driving open innovation didn’t come up with the above options just demonstrates the extent of which such technology deployment requires skill and experience.
“...and no one really cares about this or enforces its use”
Getting management to be committed and not just interested in the deployment of technology involves making sure that the business goals the technology will take them closer to, are aligned with the priorities of the executive team. We call this “Strategic fit”. If a plant manager is mostly measured on production levels with other topics taking a back seat then a technology that mostly contributes to quality will not get the attention required for its deployment efforts to reach full fruition. If we tell them about this cool vision technology that identifies faulty products they might say that they’re ‘interested’ but as noted above we will not get the necessary level of commitment from them down the line. Sometimes, we can take a technology that contributes directly to quality and reflect how it also positively affects productivity as a means of persuasion. In any case, we have to be aligned with management priorities. The best approach is to simply get concrete problems that management wants to resolve and hasn’t been able to. Those problems that have a significant negative impact on management’s abilities to achieve its goals and at the same time with no apparent cost-effective way of solving, are the ones that will get the highest management commitment levels and will also be perceived as exciting once potential solutions are presented and demonstrated.
In summary, new technology deployment is an endeavor that requires the right tools and skills in order to increase its chances of success. Besides the apparent question of whether a technology is good enough for the job, there are latent issues revolving around management commitment, adoption by various stakeholders and having a strong enough driver. But even without using any particular tools and skills, by simply being aware of the issues mentioned above, you will be taking yourself to a higher level of proficiency for this exciting yet challenging task.
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