• Many frontline workers in the US are trapped in jobs with low wages and little to no prospects for advancement.
  • Workers provided with training and career guidance tend to see their wages rise, while employers benefit from higher loyalty and lower churn.
  • Investing in technology for all employees can help manufacturers streamline their processes and improve productivity.

All workers, and especially those on the frontline, deserve and need mentorships, training, and career guidance. If they receive that type of attention, their wages increase and they can have exciting career pathways with a higher loyalty.

Frontline workers in the United States – truck drivers, manufacturing line workers, packers and shippers, grocery clerks, servers, healthcare assistants, housekeepers, janitors and so on – are frequently trapped in positions with low wages and little to no prospects for advancement.

However, if these services gradually become more important, this could eventually change. What if we told you we could speed it up by investing now? There are immediate benefits to this approach. It’s innovative. Then there’s the fact that it is the right thing to do.

A recent Harvard Business School survey, Building From the Bottom Up, shows that employers believe they have policies in place to support frontline workers. Although even if they do, they have not implemented such policies. What good is that?

Frontline workers deserve training and guidance

All workers, and especially those on the frontline, deserve and need mentorships, training, and career guidance. If they receive that type of attention, their wages increase and they can have exciting career pathways with a higher loyalty.

Why wouldn’t their employers want that? Consider that even the “best” performing industries experienced a churn rate of over 50%, according to the study above. How on Earth is that possible?

As is widely publicized, Stanley Black & Decker has taken multiple actions to address this challenge such as deploying DeepHow, Vocational Leadership Program, RISE, Impact Challenge Grants to nonprofits helping to educate the makers and many other efforts. But there is still much more to be done. Perhaps we need to do things differently, not just do more of the same.

In reality, employers, even the best of us, don’t yet fully understand what the future of work holds. Many think it has to do with automation when in reality, automation does not usually help workers – at least the way it is traditionally practiced. You could almost say that automation is yesterday’s technology.

Frontline workers want full visibility of their work

Workers want to be in charge of their own workday, set their priorities, and have full visibility of the impact of their work – even if they make mistakes. You wouldn’t believe how happy we have seen workers whenever they get a chance to correct mistakes or improve their work practices, with no consequences.

That’s the power of transparency through fluid technological interfaces through real-time or even predictive performance data. Technology should augment and alert; it should never disrupt the work process.

Have we been thinking about this the wrong way? What if it isn’t skills that workers lack, and what if the tools we have given them aren’t adequate? Tools are something that Stanley Black & Decker knows something about.

Technology should augment and alert; it should never disrupt the process

We have supplied craftsmen and builders alike with the tools they need to make things and build the world for hundreds of years. Making something is the only way to bring novelty into the world. For that reason alone, we should care deeply about our tools. They need to be the right size for the job.

It is quite abysmal to think of the tools made available to frontline workers. When office workers got computers, frontline workers got nothing. When professionals got wearables, frontline workers also received nothing, even though wearables would be a game-changer.

Most wearables are not suitable for our lowest earners with their current form factors and cost-structure. Why is that? Are we making it too complicated? There’s lots of near off-the-shelf technology that can be re-purposed or mobilized to constitute a knowledge worker kit for front-line workers, yet we haven’t bothered to do so at scale. Perhaps we should.

Technology to support frontline workers

Tulip was born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. You might think we would suggest that our technology could solve a lot of the problems with frontline workers. And it can, just not the way you may think. Tulip does indeed provide a technology platform that makes manufacturing much more efficient.

However, it is the engineers on the frontline making the change happen by better supporting the operators on the frontlines with the apps they build. Workforce engagement is a key part of Tulip’s frontline operations platform. At Tulip, everything begins and ends with workers, even in 2022 – most likely in 2032 – and in decades to come.

In Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim chart a new management framework for this important challenge.

Humans need to be prioritized over machines

We believe executives need a management framework that prioritizes humans over machines. When you empower your frontline workers, you invest in their growth, productivity and loyalty.

As it turns out, some of the largest and most successful industrial manufacturing corporations worldwide, such as Stanley Black & Decker and DMG MORI, are exploring and even implementing Augmented Lean management throughout their operations.

For example, assembly of a drill is a complex task that requires precision in order to ensure a high-performing and reliable product. Stanley Black & Decker drill assembly and quality inspection is now a very smooth process.

Tulip’s app tracks every step and lets the worker know if there's a mistake so it can be fixed right then and there, before getting sent further along the conveyor belt. That way, the consequence of any error is minimal and rapidly remedied.

After all, technology can only be as efficient as those using it and for that to be the case, it must have a simple user interface that doesn’t require specialty skills. Office workers have access to spreadsheets and word processing stored in the cloud, so why don’t manufacturing workers on the shop floor have access to advanced technology made simple to use? Simpler the better, we would say.

Would it be going too far to suggest that employers who require skills that are rare or require excessive training are enabling a discouraging practice? If employers did the opposite, what would that mean for the machines and processes we have in place today? What would it mean for workers who have no access to digitally enabled machines, wearables, apps or interfaces that simplify their work? Is that even an option at this point?

Every worker needs access to analytics

We need a future of work where each worker, even a low-wage earner, has proportional access to real-time data about the manufacturing operations they are a (small) part of, similar to that of executives and managers.

That’s the challenge and opportunity now. We see it as an opportunity because the quality increases, and wasteful processes diminish with real-time performance analytics. This is the promise of Augmented Lean.

We can accomplish this with today’s technology as long as we are willing to give it to workers, leaving yesterday’s technology behind. This requires investment, for sure, but incrementally, worker by worker, based on the challenges they each report. This is radically different from buying a machine and then trying to teach people about it.

In addition, it would take a visionary mindset that considers change to be a good thing. But if we do things right, it paradoxically requires less, not more training – just better tools. Dare we commit to such a change this decade?

Learn more about how companies and governments can work together to scale the use of technologies to augment, empower and upskill the manufacturing workforce during the session, The Augmented Manufacturing Experience, as part of the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting.