Should Operational Excellence Go Mobile?

Just because I can deliver overall equipment-effectiveness metrics to my line manager’s iPad doesn’t mean I should. A consideration of operational excellence in the age of distraction.


I heard it again last week: The announcement of an iPad application that delivers manufacturing intelligence and promotes operational excellence. I thought, Do we need to be that connected? Can we spend 20 minutes away from a desk and survive without information?

A lot of people would answer those questions “Yes” and “No.” We are knee-deep in a trend that incorporates computing power into all our activities, from iPads to hip-mounted computers to headsets that augment our reality.

The latest app to push the pursuit of operational excellence to mobile devices is the OEE Monitor by AutoLean Inc., a lightweight application for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod. Users can create views of manufacturing assets to ensure that they’re never more than a few thumb-strokes away from, for example, a report on the performance of the slitter machine on line 2.

Information overload, some might say. But the distinction between data overkill and data perfection may be as simple as this: Give manufacturing users—line managers, shift bosses—the ability to create their own mobile apps. A manager who can configure an iPad application to measure operational excellence, whatever those metrics may be, will be inclined to call for just the right amount of information. Overload comes from things like an e-mail inbox, which the user does not control, and which thus abounds with items one never asked to see.

Now we’re seeing the emergence of lightweight mobile applications that a manufacturing line manager can configure, instead of the IT person who doesn’t understand the plant, much less the tenets of operational excellence.

We can all agree that understanding key operational metrics in real time promotes operational excellence. The real challenge, as I see it, will be to prudently deliver that information to the up-and-coming generation, whose members sleep with smartphones on their pillows and break out in hives if five minutes pass without an incoming text message. This generation of youngsters will soon form the ranks of operations managers and plant floor workers. They are driven to distraction more than any generation in history, and thus it will be more important than ever to appreciate the distinction between valuable information and distraction. Maybe these kids will graduate from college and technical schools and spontaneously develop the ability to devote their full attention to the task at hand. If they don’t, they’ll waste time half-listening to a plant floor worker while staring at their iPad trying to calculate OEE. And that won’t bring us any closer to operational excellence.

It’s a challenge we’ll all face, perhaps sooner than we think.

What about you: How is your company incorporating mobile technology? Are you borrowing from the younger generation?

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