When leaders of a chemical company in Northeast Ohio started exploring the “rent-a-robot” model that’s gaining momentum in manufacturing, their biggest hang-up had nothing to do with associated costs or integration, the lack of engineering talent or the pilot process.
Their main concern was something you couldn’t easily put down in a planning doc or Excel sheet: Trust.
“The company leaders had to trust that if the robot stopped working, the lessor wouldn’t have them over a barrel — and that their employees wouldn’t reject the innovation,” said Mike O’Donnell, who worked with the chemical company in his role as vice president at MAGNET. “They also needed to trust that technological advancement was a winning strategy and that they wouldn’t be better off simply sticking with the status quo.”
This company is far from alone when it comes to trust and Industry 4.0. Every technology transformation requires this sort of trust, on any number of different levels. Gaining it isn’t easy. But amid rampant supply chain slowdowns and a debilitating labor shortage, it’s vital that manufacturers begin to do so — and take advantage of the benefits Industry 4.0 technologies can provide.
The Trust Equation, conceived by David Maister, Charles M. Green, and Rob Galford in their book, The Trusted Advisor, can help:
Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy / Self-Orientation
Broadly speaking, credibility has to do with what you say, reliability connects with your actions, intimacy involves the safety or security we feel when we trust someone, and self-orientation refers to whether the focus is on you or the other person.
In what follows, I’ll discuss how manufacturing leaders can apply this equation to build trust with three key groups when it comes to technology transformation: internal stakeholders, outside vendors, and advice-givers.
It’s the tale as old as the Industrial Revolution: When it comes to technology transformation, your employees will (understandably) fear that the robots are coming for their jobs. They’ll also — in part because of this fear — want to know that the transformation will all be worth it.
Data proving that it is worth it is out there — technology actually creates new, higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs, and can greatly improve a manufacturer’s competitiveness — but none of that matters if your employees don’t have your trust.
For this group, the Trust Equation entails:
- Credibility:You are clear and transparent about the tech transformation process, timeline, what you know and don’t know, and the benefits it will offer internal stakeholders (e.g., it will help you do your job, offer higher-skilled career opportunities, allow you to better serve our customers, etc.). Ideally, this credibility stems from an existing culture of continuous improvement.
- Reliability:You back up your words with actions, align those actions with the timeframe you proposed and take pains to help employees through the process (with training, for example). You don’t surprise people or disrupt their day-to-day without clear and transparent communication.
- Intimacy:You show your people you care by connecting with them as individuals in a non-threatening way. You engender a culture of psychological safety, which allows people to voice their fears in an open and nurturing environment.
- Self-orientation:You make it clear that you’re not only concerned about profits. This is where your values and purpose come into play. We saw this throughout the pandemic, when manufacturers stepped up and used automation to help pivot production to PPE.
Most manufacturers can’t accomplish technology transformation on their own, either because of a lack of expertise or bandwidth or both. The chemical company, for instance, was busy running a multistate operation employing more than 200 people. There were already plenty of orders to fill and troubles to shoot — without bringing on a new technology.
Like so many others, they needed to be able to assess how much they could trust their outside vendors in order to mitigate risk. Here’s what companies should factor in when doing so:
- Credibility:Do they have a proven track record of success? Do they communicate that they understand your specific company and how the technology might work at your workplace?
- Reliability:Do the vendors do the things they say they will? This can be gauged even in early conversations, whether it’s delivering requisite materials and information on time or effectively demonstrating the technology’s effectiveness.
- Intimacy:Do they care about your success, or are you just a number to them? If your gut’s telling you something’s wrong, it’s probably right.
- Self-orientation:Similar to the above, it’s helpful to get a sense of whether you’re relevant to the vendor outside of the context of this one deal. Large manufacturers may not have a problem in this respect, but smaller ones should understand whether there’s reputational risk (for the vendor) at play. For instance, vendors often lock down territories, serving as the sole supplier for a certain region. They might then have a vested interest in keeping customers in those territories happy and their reputations solid.
In addition to gaining the trust of internal stakeholders and outside vendors, organizations will have to trust those offering them advice along the way — be they lawyers, bankers, other company executives, manufacturing extension partnerships (MEPs) or others, on the payroll or not. These players can have a huge impact on a successful technology transformation, from vetting potential partners and making introductions to brokering a deal and drafting the eventual contract.
The Trust Equation can work for advice-givers, too, though because there are so many parties who can fill this role, it’s a little harder to line them up in an overarching equation. For instance, you likely already have a trusting relationship with your lawyers, bankers, and other manufacturing colleagues. As for middlemen, there’s not a super strong business model for that yet. MEPs are the closest thing, and they can help guide you through the process. For these advisers, intimacy and credibility are key — do they have your best interest in heart? The requisite knowledge and experience to help? Can you communicate with them on a personal level?
Embracing Trust as Part of Your Culture
The hard truth is that if one area of the Trust Equation breaks down, all the trustworthiness tends to go with it. And without trust from people throughout your organization, you might not get another bite at the tech transformation apple — especially when critics are quick to call out so-called “robot graveyards” on some factory floors.
This is why it’s so important to embrace trust as core to your organization’s culture. By being clear that you’re experimenting and engendering an environment of innovation, continuous improvement, and psychological safety, failures, or mistakes don’t have to be catastrophic.
They can simply be part of the process.
Written by: Ethan Karp, President and CEO, Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), for Forbes.