The idea of digital thread has been around a long time and the tech sector has developed many solutions aimed at this idea. Some of these come in the form of large over-arching PLM systems and some solutions are more agile ways of connecting the digital information we already use and hold. Either way, making digital connections between systems and process stages is now relatively easy, but many organisations are still struggling to realise their digital thread. Why is this the case?
More often than not, it’s no longer the digital-to-digital thread that presents the biggest challenge, but the human-to-digital and digital-to-human connections. It’s a little like the home delivery challenge, where the bulk movement of goods or mail between cities is relatively standardised and straightforward, but the last mile — to (or in our case also from) each individual home — is a much greater and more complex challenge.
The ‘digital last mile’ is very similar. Every individual in the business has a different requirement for information; their roles, scope and personal preferences are unique, or at least shared with only a few other people. What we deliver to them — or collect from them — needs to be well matched to their needs, availability and capability. If it’s not, the digital thread is likely to fail or be compromised.
Where to focus? ‘Digital Highway’ vs. ‘Digital Last Mile’
It’s natural when discussing digital thread to think about the systems and electronic data linkages and the investments made to support it are often focused on integrating and automating data movements, analyses and reporting within the system. Clearly this is important and a necessary step in developing a digital thread, but it is only really an enabler for digital thread (you’ve built the highway); it doesn’t make people use it such that it actually delivers the promised results.
Making it work requires the right data to be inputted or provided (typically by people) and the right outputs created which drive effective actions (typically taken by people). Time and resources need to be allocated to this well beyond just ‘delivering the training’, with much deeper and more specific engagement with the users who will ultimately make it work or fail. We must properly understand how people work, what they require in order to do their jobs well and how they can best use information to make decisions, help prioritise and to drive activity.
Indicators your digital last mile needs focus
We have seen many situations where the ‘digital last mile’ issue has proven to be significant. In each of these cases, the biggest lever for improving the digital thread was not the digital / systems side itself, as was often the initial perception. It was instead the way in which the teams interacted with the tools, both inputting complete, accurate and up to date data and extracting meaningful information from which to make confident decisions.
In these situations, there were some symptoms which appeared each and every time:
1. “I use this spreadsheet…”
Wherever information is unavailable, out of date or mistrusted, the data-savvy among your organisation will be developing ‘shadow IT’ solutions that give them what they need. They may be offline, unstable, manual and lurk below the radar but make no mistake; these are the tools and reports actually driving your business and if you want to reconnect these people to your vision for a digital thread, you need to understand and fulfil the needs that drove their cottage industry.
2. “I fill this in every week but I’m not sure who uses it.”
As well as data and tools which are being used but sit below the radar, it’s worth looking at what data and information you openly collect but which is not really used. It may be legacy or a communication disconnect, but whatever the reason, it’s using up time (and good will) of people who could be contributing to the real information needs of the organisation.
3. “I get this report every day, but I rarely look at it.”
If people are not using any of the reports or information they receive in executing their daily activity, those reports are not serving their purpose. Take the time to look at what information people actually receive each day, ask them how they use it and what they actually need, when and how. Look at ways to build it into their daily workflows and regular meeting agendas and how to make it more specific to their own unique purposes.
4. “I’ve got this new system training next week.”
Clearly new systems and ways of working require some sort of familiarisation and classroom training can be a useful piece of this, but it’s not a complete answer. Proper adoption requires a longer period of support which includes the process and work flows as well as the system and allows for personalisation and customisation following the initial implementation. Who uses their new phone out of the box anymore? We have our apps and folder structures saved and configured and would be lost without them. The same should be true of our applications at work.
5. “That’s ok, just update the system when you get a chance…”
Cultural acceptance of late, missing or inaccurate data is a sure sign that there are important issues left to solve. Unless we are strict and focused on getting the information complete, up to date and aligned, there will be no foundation to our digital thread vision. And, it’s not just a case of shouting louder. We need to understand why things are late or inaccurate and use a pragmatic mix of discipline, simplification, automation and support to get it right, and then keep monitoring. Your programme plan or product cost are meaningless if the data can’t be trusted.
6. “The system works, we just need people to do their jobs and use it!”
From one perspective, this is very often true, but it’s also the reason why so many attempts to create a digital thread fail. It’s effectively trying to create a team of people to suit a piece of software, rather than provide a suitable toolset for a team. Given the flexibility and ease of integration of today’s software and the increasing pace of programmes, it’s time we switched more attention toward the individuals and how they truly operate so that ‘Digital Last Mile’ issues don’t become the things which delay or challenge our programmes.
So, if you’re looking to work on your digital thread, make sure there is plenty of time and focus given to the team of individuals who carry your programmes forward. Some small and relatively simple improvements to their interactions with the data — inputs and outputs — will start to have a real impact without any of the disruption which comes with new tools and systems. And reserve a little scepticism for big system promises, not so much for what new tools can do, but for the real world experience your people will have and how well matched they will be to their needs.
Ian Quest is director of consulting at Quick Release_
Based in London, Ian operates internationally as he leads QR_’s growing consultancy arm. His focus is on unlocking competitive advantage by bringing products to market faster and more efficiently. An early career in aerospace engineering led to senior leadership roles with several prominent manufacturing consultancies, culminated in the directorship of Newton Europe’s Air, Land & Sea business. Ian joined QR_ full time in 2017, having previously provided non-executive advisory to its founders.