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BAE Systems, Virgin Orbit Put People First in Digital Journeys

Conrad Leiva
By Conrad Leiva VP of Ecosystem and Workforce Development, CESMII
Building the LauncherOne in Virgin Orbit’s rocket factory in Long Beach, CA.

As organizations embark on smart manufacturing transformation initiatives, it is easy to get focused on the technology aspects and underestimate the “people” aspects. However, successful transformation leaders know better. In fact, some of my colleagues at MESA International, including President Mike Yost, have postulated that knowledge workers should be at the center of all smart manufacturing implementation projects. The goal is not necessarily to automate old production processes. The goal should be to put knowledge workers at the center of the manufacturing enterprise and empower them with new real-time information, so they can make better decisions and direct business processes in new innovative and optimized ways.

If you study successful experiences demonstrated during some recent highly successful implementations, you quickly learn of certain practice patterns that should be considered by organizations undertaking transformation projects. An example is planning for and managing cultural and procedural changes that involve people—from the onset of the initiative.

That was the case in a recent manufacturing execution system (MES) implementation project at BAE Systems. The British multinational defense, security and aerospace firm embarked on a digital transformation journey for its manufacturing operations across a broad geographical, cultural and product footprint. The managers realized early into the project that communication and change management processes were just as important as the technology components to the success of the project. They implemented formal change management processes to ensure the required cultural change in addition to the required new skills and procedures related to the implementation of the new technology.

“People will think it’s a technology-based project—it’s really a people project,” Steven Rubenfeld, manager of operations systems at BAE, told LNS Research. “Think of who’s touching that software—it’s all people. People need to become accustomed, they need to be trained, they need to understand, and they need to embrace that change. You have to get them involved throughout the project lifecycle.”

Here are three aspects of the people dimension in the smart manufacturing transformation.

1. Strategic Culture Change

One of the first considerations for a successful transformation initiative is to develop a sense of urgency for improvement and an environment conducive to change in the organization. It is important to educate the management team on new competitive pressures, how the manufacturing marketplace is changing and how new ecosystems are developing that require upgrades to the way the business runs and the service levels offered to customers.

Significant change is seldom successfully implemented by top-down brute force edicts. To get a commitment from the management team, it is critical to define a clear vision for the organization’s future state and explain the business case for change. It is important to make top management commitment clear to the team, but it is also important that everyone understands the vision and the urgency behind the changes.

2. Project Management

Establish a solid team to manage the project with champions who are committed to seeing it through its implementation period. Preferably, find champions who have the respect of key stakeholders in areas most impacted by the change. IT personnel will be an important part of the team. But it is better to have the initiative led by champions that come from the business as opposed to IT ranks alone.

A solid rollout plan with phased milestones, realistic timelines and proper resource allocation is essential to transformation success. Choose the first rollout areas strategically to achieve early obvious benefits and demonstrate value to the rest of the organization.

A clear definition of scope and metrics for success is also important. Not only do we need to start with a clear scope definition, we need to implement scope management methods from the onset to minimize scope creep from creative ideas as the project unfolds.

For example, at a recent manufacturing system deployment, the Virgin Orbit team did a great job at managing business requirements and keeping to the original out-of-the-box goals by asking the “why” question each time a customization was requested. The Long Beach, Calif-based rocket maker is preparing to provide launch services for small satellites.

“This is a very powerful tool that is especially impressive when considering we didn’t have to do any configurations for the primary implementation,” said Andrzej Goryca, enterprise application manager at Virgin Orbit. “That not only speeds time-to-value, it keeps the costs down.”

3. Teamwork, Training and Communication

Another common theme among successful implementation teams is an emphasis on teamwork and communication. When it comes to communication, “all of the above” seems to be the best practice. Communication needs to go beyond occasional emails and include posters, website pages and, most importantly, daily and weekly, direct, face-to-face interactions with impacted supervisors and their teams. It is important to answer questions on the spot or get back quickly with answers to reduce anxieties that surface because of changing systems and procedures.

Training should start early with the team of champions that will become the subject matter experts (SMEs) on the new solution.

At the Virgin Orbit initiative, the implementation team accelerated adoption of the software by providing targeted implementation workshops to LauncherOne’s core implementation team on each of the functional areas that included the basics of each area with best-practices coaching, as well as a framework for business process transformation and execution/utilization for LauncherOne manufacturing. “This knowledge was passed on very successfully to the team at large,” Goryca said. “Communication with the entire team was essential to the ramp up, as was making sure everyone knew they were an important part of the team. The commitment we had from our top-level leadership also helped us get up to speed fast.”

BAE Systems called the SMEs “lifeguards,” and the SMEs followed up training in each area with a ratings survey. Additional training and support were provided if there were lingering questions or concerns about the changes.

When the team addresses the people dimension from the start, the odds of support and success are exponentially higher. Smart manufacturing transformation is not just about technology—it is about a cultural change that can be summed up as moving away from command-control, fear-based management and toward inspiring, empowering and engaged leadership. It is moving away from siloed departmental functions and punitive incentives and toward collaborative, threaded functions that reward best-in-class performance throughout the value chain.

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