Turbocharging Lean: The Value of Connected Worker Systems
Isaac Maw posted on February 10, 2020 |
We chat with Lawrence Whittle, CEO of Parsable about this technology.

As 2020 gathers steam, Parsable, a connected worker platform provider out of San Francisco, has released a few key predictions for the manufacturing industry. According to CEO Lawrence Whittle, these trends will shape manufacturing this year and into the future. Engineering.com sat down with Whittle to discuss the trends. They are:

Increased Value Placed on Human Activity Data

Industrial companies will raise the priority of capturing human activity data to improve productivity, quality and safety, opening up new opportunities to apply machine learning.


Across the value chain, sustainability will be a key driver in technology decisions; improving operational efficiency and limiting waste in the manufacturing process is now mandatory.

Mass Customization

“Batch of one” will truly become the norm in manufacturing as consumers demand choice, and manufacturers have no choice but to respond with rapidly deploying agile, mobile-first Connected Worker platforms.


Safety really becomes a C-suite issue as the correlation of safety to quality and overall operational efficiency becomes increasingly clear.

Check out our chat about these trends below.

Lawrence Whittle, CEO, Parsable

Lawrence Whittle, CEO, Parsable

What does Parsable mean when it calls itself a “connected worker platform?”

Parsable is a cloud-based platform that is targeted at the industrial worker, including in the food and beverage, oil and gas, or automotive industries, for example. Parsable provides a multitude of digital tools that enable you to digitize standard operating procedures.

So, how do you execute work? Instead of relying on a 6-inch binder or tribal knowledge, we’re creating an environment where you can digitize those work instructions into a platform and then provide those to anyone involved in the work, be it in manufacturing, service or operation. At the same time, you’re also capturing human activity data in terms of how people are executing work, ultimately using that data to look for opportunities to improve efficiency, quality and safety.

You’ve probably heard a lot about robotics and automation of machines. Think about us as providing a set of modern digital tools to augment and help automate the execution of work that involves humans.

How do you think the role of mobile devices, like smart phones and tablets, has changed in recent years in industrial environments? These devices aren’t designed for those environments, but as digital tools like Parsable become more and more popular, we’re using them more and more. What do you think about that?

When we started the company almost seven years ago, the discussion of devices was very topical. Exactly to this point of, “Are industrial environments going to allow these devices, or are these devices viable within the industrial space?” Well, if you go through the last three to four years, pricing has come down to a level. The aesthetics of the actual robustness of the devices is now almost a non-issue. The security now is at a level where that’s a non-issue. Then finally, why would you have anyone execute work using a binder or clipboard when you can execute them now through mobile devices? So, in general, I think the acceptance of these devices now is almost a given because of these four main factors. The price coming down, the robustness of the devices, the security and the demand for these modern digital tools.

On the first trend, when it comes to capturing human activity data, are we talking about measuring the productivity of each individual or taking human activity in aggregate and using that to inform all the workers rather than measuring each one? Or maybe a combination of both?

In my personal experience, having gone around the world to many companies that have tens of thousands of employees, I don’t think anyone is sitting there wanting to understand an individual worker. What they’re really looking to understand is how to operate the most efficient process but at the aggregate: how to drive performance. Performance is impacted by how well people are able to execute work and how well they’re able to execute work repeatably every time.

The benefit of understanding human activity data is not actually tracking an individual. It’s actually understanding what goes on in a work process. You can then use the data to ensure that the work is executed faithfully to a higher quality. If you execute work to a higher quality, you typically get higher productivity.

For example, often you find one shift is more effective than the next shift, or one factory is manufacturing products more effectively than another factory that’s also manufacturing the same product. When you get down to it, it’s not about an individual. It’s actually about how, as a group, machines and humans interact. With this data, you can implement effective changes.

One of the key strengths of the lean manufacturing methodology is that it empowers workers to take the initiative to make continuous improvements. For example, Toyota famously empowered all line workers to stop the line to solve a problem instead of just a few foremen as in the conventional auto plant. If you’re collecting data on the human activity, then you may not even need your workers to take the initiative. It sounds like human activity data collection could “turbocharge” lean, in a way, if you’re collecting that data rather than relying on individuals to make continuous improvement suggestions. Do you agree with that?

You’re spot on. It inherently drives up performance because you identify specific operational areas for improvement.

We see this a lot in global companies where you see non-standard performance across different locations. It’s not about, “that group of workers is better than this group of workers.” It’s likely that there’s a particular sequence of events. Maybe when you are changing, doing some engineering on the line, there’s a particular step in that process that one group in one location actually knows how to do in a certain way whereas another group is struggling with it.

In fact, once they get this practice documented, everyone can align. Turbocharging lean is really what it’s all about. It’s putting lean into context across all processes, whether it’s resource use, quality, safety or changeovers. On the aggregate level, we raise the efficiency of the overall company. I think the term “turbocharging lean” is a very good description.

The next trend is sustainability. Can connected worker tools help organizations understand how sustainable they are and target that?

This year, globally, sustainability is on the agenda, whether it’s the public agenda or the industrial agenda. The role of platforms like Parsable is to uncover the opportunities to reduce waste in the manufacturing process as a whole.

Modern digital tools can drive a level of visibility into the process, which means you can eliminate waste. These tools unlock where the leakage is in the process that’s causing the waste.

A year and a half to two years ago, sustainability was certainly on the agenda, but now what people are realizing is that sustainability is an existential risk for the world and also an existential opportunity to drive greater efficiency. These modern digital tools highlight opportunities for transparency. For example, I was looking last week at statistics where the amount of inventory that people are holding for parts within the aerospace industry is $50 billion for each of the big OEMs. That’s because there’s not a lot of visibility.

The third trend refers to the batch size of one, or sometimes called mass customization. I’ve been writing about that all year. It isn’t just connected worker platforms that are needed to achieve this, but it’s also analytics at the edge and Internet of Things (IoT) on the machines. How does your connected worker platform dovetail with the data you’re getting from the machines? How important is it to have both and for them to be interoperable, or ingestible, into the same ecosystem?

“Batch size of one” or “mass customization” is not breaking news. It’s been working into the manufacturing environment, driven by consumers, for probably five to 10 years, specifically in consumer product companies where maybe they once had five blazers and two hat sizes and now they have 55 blazers and 55 pants sizes. It becomes an exponential issue when you think about simple things like packaging, line changes or tracking.

The amount of engineering interventions in this “batch of one” factory is an existential risk. But what’s also occurring is a greater availability of technology. For example, distributed manufacturing enabled by additive manufacturing. Over the next 10 years, the number of manufacturing locations there are will probably become exponential. Each of these manufacturing hubs may be smaller and more flexible. The business issues driven by consumer demand and the technology available is clear.

The way I think about it, the term “connected worker” is a derivative of connected work. If you think about connected work, it means machines are connected, humans are connected and the value chain is connected.

I like to abstract the discussion around this: if the consumer is connected with their ability to design their product online, and that design, and the commerce front-end is also connected with the manufacturing environment, and in the manufacturing environment the machines and human workers are all connected, then you get this sort of holistic view of data.

The machine can sense when they need to have intervention. It can send a signal to a human to perform that interaction. The whole concept of this “batch of one” is having the whole value chain connected. Consumers choose the configuration. That configuration is connected down to the manufacturing side. The machine and the human are connected so that they understand the data, and ultimately the product is delivered on time and on value. I think that this symbiotic relationship between human intervention and machine intervention has increased in that humans have mobile devices and modern digital tools. We call it “the connected worker,” and the machines have connectivity through sensors. That data gets meshed together so you actually have that holistic view.

There are some companies doing it already, particularly in the CPG space, which has got the most extreme challenges when it comes to customization. They’re having to do it because the number of line changeovers that they now have to do. It’s already becoming exponential. So, the ability to have the consumer, manufacturing and worker all in the same data back-end I think is really powerful. You can argue whether it’s one year, five years or 10, but I can guarantee that within 10 years. Depending on the particular vertical market, the concept of connected work will become ubiquitous. It’ll be connected workers and sensor-enabled machines across the value process.

Now the last one here is safety. Why safety in 2020? Safety is always a priority, so how does today’s industry 4.0 technology benefit safety, and what else do you have to say about this trend?

Safety has been on the agenda for industrial companies for decades, primarily because the environments they’re working in are among the most hazardous environments. Even if you roll it right through to this year with the Amazon worker injury rate, which is 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers, that’s something you can’t hide from. It’s always been a very important subject. For every one of my customers, this has been a boardroom initiative for 10 years. In fact, I regularly go to meetings, even with me as a partner, and they’ll open up the internal meeting with a safety moment where they’ll make an observation.

The interesting thing about modern digital tools is that the area of safety has been, at best, a batch operation, meaning you go into a location the morning, you look at a picture on the wall that says, “Put on my PPE, my safety glasses, my safety helmet.” Then, if there’s an issue during the day, someone maybe writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it into a spreadsheet. At the end of the quarter, maybe someone defines some level of analytics around how many serious injuries I had per 100 full-time workers or other reporting. The benefit of these modern digital tools is that it actually now makes safety part of the overall process.

When we think about work, it could be cleaning the bathroom or building an airplane. Here’s the steps that you want a human to meticulously execute in a particular sequence and then, if something occurs, they take a structured delta in a different direction based on a series of events.

Digital connected worker tools enable you to enforce a level of adherence that is way above systems based on safety manuals or a piece of paper on the wall. If you’re given PPE instructions via digital devices that say, “Put on your safety glasses, put on your safety helmet,” take a picture to show you’ve put it on and wait for your supervisor to digitally release you. The benefit of digital is that you can now embed safety into every working structure as opposed to it being just at the start of work or maybe at the end of the work, for example.

It’s a bit like sustainability. It’s not breaking news that industrial companies are focused on safety. I’ve had the pleasure to go and visit fracking sites in the oil industry, or other heavy engineering locations. These are very noisy, hazardous environments. These companies and workers take safety very seriously. Modern digital tools enable you to integrate safety into the overall operating procedure.

When I worked in a medium-sized machine shop, I noticed that as a worker, you have a lot of stand-up meetings, whether it’s about continuous improvement or safety or other issues where it’s all about suggestions, and you need to remember to bring up that issue you had last week. But it sounds like data collection could really enhance that aspect of working in a factory and communicating with your workers. It makes me wonder if there are other areas for optimization around those things that workers need to bring up and that management needs to remember to meet with workers about.

You’re spot on. The real benefit of these modern digital tools is that there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t sweep issues under the rug. I think companies are starting to use sustainability and safety as badges of honor to show that they’re an employer of choice. I think those companies that use modern digital tools, or adopting them now, are in and of itself a very good insurance policy for the workplace of the future, which is to be more of a dynamic workforce and more of an early career workforce. In the context of putting safety into a digital environment, it has such a win-win effect.

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