1. Look for your pain points and be willing to change.
Each business is different, and while we share some common pain points, others may be more specific. A technology solution that meets the needs of one type of operation may be useless to another. Sometimes we get so busy running the day-to-day operations of our businesses, we don’t take the time to look at the business environment around us. What are the new trends? What’s the competition doing? What do my customers want? What are my business needs? Step back, examine your business and find your true pain points.
The second gift you can give yourself is to be open to change. It’s human nature to be uncertain of change, or to even fear it. But in this ever-competitive environment we work in, chances are, you are going to have to change your operations. In fact, that’s really what this is about: making changes that render your operation more cost effective, sustainable, efficient, and better suited to meet your customers’ needs.
Only one certainty – if you don’t continue to evolve your business, others will make those changes and you could find yourself out of business.
2. Develop awareness of technologies, develop connections and engage with entrepreneurs and vendors.
Find sources of information. Connect with entrepreneurs and start-ups. And don’t forget about established technology and service providers who are offering new opportunities, upgraded technology products and services. Lastly, engage. Trade associations and universities are always providing opportunities to engage. Go to demonstrations, work with technology providers to test equipment and develop a sense of whether that technology product is a solution to your pain point.
3. Evaluate your current systems and map where you want to go.
Ever stand back in your field, packinghouse, processing plant or distribution facility and just watch? Is what you see efficient? Do you have too many workers, or too few? Does the product flow evenly or stop and start? Does the product move from one part of the operation to another to create efficiencies? Do you have equipment that can generate digital data? Can you collect and analyze that data? Can pieces of equipment communicate with each other?
What measures do you currently have in place to help you identify where you might get better? Can you measure how much each step costs you? Are there cost savings there? What are the financial implications (cost of capital versus operational costs, ROI, opportunity to increase business, threat of business loss to competition)?
Are your production processes choreographed like a ballet, or do they look like a crowd exiting a football stadium going every which way? You need to map your process. Identify where you should make changes to improve efficiencies, quality, safety. Identify the priorities and know what your timelines and resources are.
4. Check upstream and downstream.
You have to think of what you are doing as a process. You want to build in efficiencies; not move your problems upstream or downstream from your new technology. Components of your process all need to work together. If one operation works faster than another, then you just build up behind that step and you don’t really gain any speed, efficiency or cost savings. Check upstream and downstream of where you want to make a change. You need to synchronize steps so they work together and the whole process gains speed, cost savings, and more consistency.
You have to think of controlling and improving the whole process, whatever your production process might be.
5. Adopting a new technology has costs.
There are a variety of ways to understand what those costs are. You can look at the cost of the new equipment and add in installation. There also may be some business disruption costs because you have to assume some decline in productivity while the new system or process gets up and running. There are training costs to learn how to use the new technology, and there might be ongoing data collection and analytics costs and so on. Don’t forget that if you invest in this technology, it might mean that you lose the opportunity to invest elsewhere in your business. And, of course, somewhere in the process, you need to determine what success would look like to you and then consider your probabilities of attaining success.
Hand in hand with that analysis, you also have to look at the upsides. What new opportunities might come your way as a result of the investment? Can you retain current customers? Can you gain new customers? Can you expand your capacity? Can you develop new product lines? Can you reduce input costs, such as energy or water? What might happen if you don’t invest? Can you stay competitive? What is the time horizon for your business?
6. Selecting your supplier or vendor is always important.
When you buy a car, price is always important, but most of us look for information on how other owners have fared with that model. We might talk with our neighbors or relatives, or check the internet and other sources for information. We might shop around a bit and look at alternatives.
We always look at service. Do they have a good track record? Do they have the parts? Do they have the knowledge and mechanics? Does the shop have long waiting lists for appointments? How far are they away from my home?
We have to go through the same process when selecting a provider for a new technology. Your new technology is going to require modifications, it will break down, and it will be upgraded. Can your provider give you that service? Do they have the parts and the expertise? Can they train your staff? What is their track record? Having the right supplier makes implementation easier.
Implementation might be one of the hardest things to do. It often means operational disruption and it is hard to turn back. It can sometimes mean running in parallel streams. For example: implementing a mechanized harvester might mean using the machine but continuing to use a harvest crew for a certain time period because you can’t be out of product. Changing a packing line into an automated line might entail the same. Chances are, the introduction of the automated line will take some time to perfect, and you have orders to make so you run in parallel.
This is also where any asynchronies will show up, i.e. where one part of your process might outstrip another unexpectedly.
Training is critical – how do you use the equipment, and what do you do about people issues? Do you have the talent to run more sophisticated equipment? How about sanitation challenges and food safety issues? Does the technology change the product? Are you communicating with your customers?
8. Assess and fine tune.
Nobody gets it exactly right the first time. Part of defining success is choosing the appropriate measurements to assess that progress. You might need outside expertise to assist. Choose vendors that can help.
Assessment can be both operational (workflow, labor, product quality) and financial. Are you achieving the efficiencies you sought?