Technology is nothing without the people that use it to create new, lasting innovation. But when it comes to organizational change and digital transformation, adopting the latest tech often seems to be the top priority, even if the most significant change may come from nurturing grassroots ideas instead of blue sky thinking.
So for a large multinational serving the breadth of the electronics sector, how do you ensure that digital transformation builds on the strongest source of innovation, the people working directly with those new technologies and processes?
Building on level ground
According to Jabil’s digital transformation strategy, the best ideas come straight from the source, and making digital transformation stick is simply a case of putting those ideas into practice across the board. Jabil is an American multinational end-to-end manufacturing solutions provider with ~200,000 employees in 100 locations, serving around 300 different product brands from automotive to healthcare and consumer electronics – put simply, Jabil “has probably played some part in the electronics you touch everyday,” says Michal Wierzchowski, Senior Director of Materials EMS. Aside from being a link in most electronics manufacturing chains, Jabil also has an interesting approach to digital transformation and organizational change that is more measured than most. In 2018 Jabil started looking at integrating technology into their workflows, but before bringing in any new technology they first turned to process mining, enlisting Signavio to put their operational processes under the microscope to build on the breadth of knowledge already existent in their workforce.
As Summer Rawlins, Senior Director of Strategy and Communications at Jabil, explains: “We had around 200,000 employees at the time and we knew that innovation was happening in our different sites – the challenge for us was to harness that innovation and utilize it across the whole company.” In order to capture good ideas for changes and standardize them across all of their sites, Jabil implemented an operating model with “subject matter experts at the site, regional and global level” says Rawlins, so that “ideas and innovation around the best processes can bubble up from the grassroots level and proliferate across the organization.”
By ensuring that people on the factory floor know they can share their ideas with experts on site, and that these ideas can extend up to the regional and global level, Jabil helps employees to feel heard not just by their peers but by the organization as a whole. Giving people on the factory floor this means of communicating their ideas directly through this ‘one-to-few, few-to-many’ model (one employee to a few experts, a few experts to the whole company) also makes it “easier for innovative changes to be brought into day-to-day operations,” says Rawlins – since “everything on the factory floor runs the same,” any changes can be implemented fairly quickly across all sites.
Developing best practices
Putting ideas into practice and “propagating improved processes out to the other factories,” says Rawlins, is handled through a common development platform which allows ideas that have flowed up through the layers of experts to be programmed into a common platform from any site. This also allows automated processes to be changed quickly in response to human ideas from the factory floor (or at any stage within the operational model) so that changes are brought into the technical framework of the company as well as the human side of the organization. To build this common development platform, Jabil literally brought their subject matter experts into one room – “let’s all sit together to decide the standard core process workflow,” explains Wierzchowski, “from there we could define the best tools to use, the best processes, and the data we needed to collect.”
While trying to agree on one standard process framework could have ended in a lot of bad blood between sites, Wierzchowski assured me that this was not the case: “We realized that many sites have their own defined processes, and some facilities were not as good as others. At that point we said if we all agree how the end-to-end processes should look, then let’s agree what are the common platforms and tools to support this process.” Once an ideal end-to-end process was settled upon, Jabil made a “sort of steering committee… made up of developers aggregated at the regional level, rather than at every site” to agree common coding and development practices, says Wierzchowski. Although, from experience, I am sure there was a little more pushback than Wierzchowski would let on to me, this method of decision-making ensured that “almost every level of the organization was engaged in decision-making” at some point, says Wierzchowski, and “by giving them the chance to choose the tools, people started to feel like owners of that process.”
Jabil’s focus on harnessing the potential of their employees – whether through their strategy of bringing the best ideas up from the factory floor, or their democratic method of airing potentially conflicting perspectives to make decisions – seems to be a successful way to approach digital transformation. Rather than trying to move to a fully automated ‘lights-out’ factory, Jabil instead looked to their existing workforce, with the logic that “digital transformation will change everyone’s role from the factory floor to the executive level,” says Rawlins, “so people need to be at the center, and need to be engaged with that transformation.”
This kind of engagement throughout the organization is also reflected in an annual ‘Deliver Best Practices’ competition to find the most innovative changes within the company – “it’s a very competitive environment,” says Rawlins, “and people love it when their solution gets showcased and adopted by other sites.” Their people-centric approach plays out further in Jabil’s glaringly simple retention strategy: “Because our organizational structure is designed with teams dedicated to individual clients called “Workcells” (when asked, workers will often say they work for their specific customers rather than Jabil itself), if anyone is looking for new opportunities, we can easily move them to another customer in an entirely different market,” says Wierzchowski. This means that when faced with burnout, fatigue or dissatisfaction, Jabil has the rare ability to suggest something completely different to their employees, keeping the focus on their wellbeing without sacrificing the overall productivity of the organization.
Employee engagement and digital transformation go hand in hand, even if some forget the powerful relationship between the two. In this respect, actively engaging employees and using their ideas in a digital transformation process can help not only to incorporate technology more effectively into the operations of a company, but keep that change process centered around the people that it will affect the most. In terms of making truly useful innovation stick, and becoming more digitally mature in the process, going to the people first seems like an incredibly efficient approach.