Plant Tours In The 21st Century: How Service Leaders Can Stay Connected

Gary Nelson

Part six of a six-part blog series based on my 30+ years’ experience collaborating on innovation with complex, discrete machinery manufacturers. 

In my previous blog, I discussed how human resource leaders can hire and retain qualified industrial manufacturing talent by being digitally engaged. Now I want to share my take on how field service leaders can attract and retain customers, work synergistically with manufacturing, and generate profits by implementing a digital field service solution.

As I’ve mentioned in the other blogs in this series, I found an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why (and How) to Take a Plant Tour,” written by David M. Upton, professor of operations management at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. The article was written back in May 1997, but I was fascinated to see how much things have changed.

For one thing, 22 years ago, field service was regarded as an obligation and not the opportunity it is today. Back then, those ubiquitous three-part carbonless copy forms were the backbone of field service. Technicians in the field would scrawl all manner of numbers on the form, including time, price, serial numbers, part numbers, invoice numbers, and more. Then the pink copy would find its way back to some hapless data-entry clerk who had to discern all those the faint numbers scribbled across the forms and enter the information into a primitive database. At that time, customer care and service was an expensive logistical nightmare.

Professor Upton viewed things like brand, purpose, and customer service as a distraction from the manufacturing objective, and in his article, he admonished manufacturers to focus on making product:

Although it is vitally important that a plant understand its strategic purpose, the fact of the matter is that many do not. Often, managers do not establish clear priorities. Consider how many shop floors and reception desks have banners displayed above them that read:

This operation will be a high-quality, low-cost facility providing outstanding flexibility, reliability, and customer service. We commit to generating the most innovative products at the leading edge of technology. We pride ourselves on safety and care for the environment. We will strive to be world class on every dimension, while providing a rewarding work environment for our people – who are our most important asset.

Such well-meaning, but fundamentally muddled, objectives are often the result of design by committee. One can imagine the circumstances that give rise to them. A meeting is held in which someone proposes that low cost be the most important dimension of improvement for the plant. “But what about quality?” asks another member of the team (1990s’ code for committee). “What about flexibility?” asks yet another. Soon the plant’s mission statement includes everything and says nothing.

I wonder if Professor Upton would still feel that way today. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, so we’re unable to ask him, but the entire industry landscape has changed vastly since he wrote that article. Using superior cloud-based technology (including Internet of Things, machine learning, blockchain, and AI), meaningful data, and a well-educated workforce, it is now possible to shift the objective from merely delivering a finished product to a customer, on time and on spec, to being a valued partner. Yes, this means that all those things Professor Upton talked about (high quality, low cost, flexibility, reliability, a rewarding work environment, innovative products, safety, care for the environment, and especially service) are not only aspirations but are critical to the strategic purpose.

There’s an old adage that customers don’t want quarter-inch drill bits; they want quarter-inch holes. Professor Upton was arguing that manufacturers should focus on making the best possible drill bits, but today, I would argue that manufacturers should focus on helping customers create the best possible holes. Service is mission critical to that goal because it is increasingly difficult for manufacturers to compete on the basis of features and benefits (drill bits). There’s a tremendous volume of competitive information available that has led to product parity. However, it’s possible – in fact advisable – for manufacturers to compete on the basis of service (holes).

The good news is that service doesn’t have to be the expensive logistical nightmare it once was. With a robust field service management solution, technicians can review customer histories, part availability, and much more online or offline, simply by using their mobile phones. Tasks can be quickly assigned to the right people using drag-and-drop tools. And by locating the nearest qualified technician, travel time can be minimized to improve productivity. Scheduling, planning, and dispatching can also be optimized using artificial intelligence. Customer expectations can be met and exceeded with a flexible, on-demand service network, and internal service teams can be easily supplemented with partner, customer, or freelance technicians. To get a better glimpse where all the paperwork goes to die, take a couple of minutes to watch this video.

The best news, however, is that through efficiencies, field service can be more profitable than ever. Technicians can become service ambassadors, working with customers to create individualized programs, helping develop innovative business models, and finding new sources of revenue. In fact, according to the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), 78% of all industrial equipment and technology companies experienced growth in service revenues. Further, Service Council data reports that 27% of organizations indicate that their service contributes 40% or more to their total revenue.

Well, my understanding is that three-part carbonless forms are still widely available. Perhaps you can search for them on AltaVista and order them via AOL instant messenger. I won’t judge, but 1997 was a long time ago, so it may be time to innovate. I have a lot of respect for Professor Upton’s ideas. They made sense at the time. It’s unfortunate that he’s not able to comment now, but I suspect, like me, he would have been very excited about the future of technology in manufacturing.

The best advice I can give to any manufacturer looking to innovate is to ask for help. The idea of embracing new technology can be very intimidating. I understand that. But I get tremendous satisfaction when I can help a business take on that challenge and achieve its full potential. I’m always glad to help.

For more insight about plant tours in the 21st century, read the earlier posts in this six-part blog series based on my 30+ years’ experience collaborating on innovation with complex, discrete machinery manufacturers.

Gary Nelson

About Gary Nelson

Collaborating on innovation with complex, discrete machinery manufacturers around the world for over 30 years, Gary has worked as a cost accounting manager, a manufacturing consultant, a solution engineer, and ― for the past dozen or so years ― the North America Lead Industry Advisor for industrial machinery and components manufacturers. He is a member of the University of Illinois at Chicago Supply Chain Advisory Board. Specializing in supply chain and manufacturing at work, Gary refreshes his soul at the ball park on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, cheering on his beloved White Sox.