“Artificial intelligence will improve the repetitiveness of work”

Artificial intelligence will improve the repetitiveness of work. This technology will create an opportunity for people to do value-added skills and leave automation to deal with the more mundane activities. AI is also great for the workforce because it will increase productivity and make the actual work that people do more interesting and rewarding.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Richard Lebovitz, CEO of LeanDNA.

Richard is the founder and CEO of LeanDNA, the only purpose-built analytics platform for factory inventory optimization. Built by lean experts, LeanDNA empowers supply chain professionals to dramatically reduce excess inventory, improve on-time delivery, successfully navigate shortages, and establish operational command. Prior to LeanDNA, Lebovitz founded Austin-based Factory Logic, Inc., a leading provider of Lean factory management systems that was acquired by SAP in 2003. Lebovitz also serves as a board member for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

About 30 years ago I started working with a Japanese firm, and my experience there had a big influence on me in terms of manufacturing, working with teams all over the world, and understanding how to use data to solve real problems that make work easier for people in manufacturing.

This experience, my background in systems building, and my understanding of the innovative, lean manufacturing methodology that started 50–60 years ago in Japan, is why I began exploring ways to implement better systems for manufacturing companies.

When I founded Factory Logic, our focus was building systems to help lean factories become more automated and complement their existing ERP systems. Once the company was acquired by SAP, I then spent five years working with global manufacturing companies to develop systems and analytics to drive reduced inventory and improve delivery performance. It was during this time that I discovered that most companies were spending months or even years developing their own homegrown solutions to solve the exact same problems. Because of this apparent market need, I started a company called LeanDNA to provide an out-of-the-box solution for discrete manufacturers that can do much more than homegrown solutions can and at a much faster pace.

Today at LeanDNA, we understand the frustration among the day-to-day users who are bogged down by manual processes and don’t have the sophisticated tools they need to optimize their business. Unfortunately, this need is not always fully understood by IT providers. And that is what makes us really stand out as a company. We bridge that gap by equipping manufacturers with the advanced technology that makes challenging work easier for their teams.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

There has been a big focus on outsourcing over the last 15–20 years as manufacturers attempted to reduce costs by moving production to low-cost countries. During the same period of time, a marketing trend emerged where the web and big-box retailers ushered in the demand for more product differentiation and customization.

This growing need for product customization has put a huge amount of pressure on manufacturing. Even though the factory floor has become more and more automated over the years, that technology wasn’t built in a way that helps manufacturers efficiently manage this complexity, which is only going to get worse. The challenge now becomes how do you implement a strategy that solves the challenges of getting lower cost parts, lower inventory, and improved customer delivery in an increasingly complex and global supply chain. The end result is what we see today — a lot of stock outs and people who can’t get the goods that they need because the current strategy is not well executed.

The other issue is hiring the right people to manage these complex supply chains. There is a real skills gap in manufacturing that’s only getting worse. Workers not only need to have a firm understanding of the domain and business problem, but they also need to know how to build and use the technology that will solve the pressing problems facing today’s manufacturers. Either one of these skill sets is already difficult to find in an applicant, much less both. Those two worlds really need to come together over the next 15–20 years, but this means that the right people to bridge that gap will become even harder to find.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

I think it’s a mistake when people decide not to go to college, and I believe that happens when people don’t really think of college’s true intent. Most people think of going to college as building out a skill set, but the reality is that people in college are learning how to learn. They’re learning how to solve complex problems and how to work collaboratively with different people. If they skip college and jump immediately into a work environment, they might have the technical knowledge necessary to perform in their role, but they’re missing out on the experiences that are going to make them successful long-term.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

People will have to be much better networkers and pretty savvy when it comes to creating the right social personas. The good thing is that there is a tremendous amount of roles out there that employers are looking for. But to fill those roles, individuals have to figure out how to rise above the noise and are going to have to sell themselves a lot more than they ever have before.

Also, don’t always think about the roles you’re going to get paid for. For example, getting involved in activities that aren’t necessarily paid — like volunteer opportunities — will help you build better networks and create robust connections. Sometimes it’s simply knowing a friend or relative within your social circles that can make the right job connection for you.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

Manufacturing was among the first industries to become automated with robotics, so there was this fear and perception that people were going to lose jobs. But the reality is that automation is going to create opportunities for people to work with a much higher-level skill set.

We’re seeing this in the supply chain — instead of workers trying to figure out how to chase down a part and sending emails, they’re using technology to better prioritize their workflows, giving them more time to think strategically and make a more meaningful impact on the company. This is an opportunity for people to do rewarding work, hone their value-added skills, and leave automation to deal with the more mundane activities. Automation is great for the workforce because it will increase productivity and make the work that people do more interesting.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

We’ll eventually see a return to the office, but there will still be a place for remote work because the pandemic has shown that it works. Even at LeanDNA, some of our employees have the option to work remotely.

But there is something about seeing each other in the office and the collaboration that comes from in person meetings that remote work can’t replicate. The high performers who work well independently will always do well, whether at home or in the office. But the reality is that you have great people in the workforce who need more coaching and mentoring, and they feel like they might get left behind without face-to-face time. So what we’re seeing now is a ton of remote meetings being scheduled, leaving people without having enough time in the day to simply think.

This is why I think there at least needs to be a hybrid work option. People will realize that setups like satellite offices, for example, will expand opportunities for employers and employees alike. There will always be a place for people to go and collaborate, but we also don’t want to lose the efficiencies we gained by eliminating things like long commutes.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

It seems to me that people’s calendars are getting filled up more than ever before. We don’t have time to think any more because it’s so easy to schedule 30-minute meetings that aren’t always necessary. Businesses will need to evolve so that employees’ productivity isn’t defined by just attending meetings, but is instead centered more on the value-add operations they can contribute to the company. Businesses should also allow people to block at least 15% of their calendar for thinking time.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

Remote work opens the door for people to work anywhere in the world. Because of this, employers will have to work harder to make jobs more exciting and rewarding for their employees, and to do even more to generate enthusiasm around their company’s vision and future.

But it’s really an opportunity for both employers and employees. Employees can potentially look for jobs anywhere in the world, no matter where they live. And similarly, employers can look for talent anywhere in the world to join their teams.

It all comes down to the fact that the world is a lot more globalized now. At LeanDNA, for example, we work in 21 countries. There is a growing opportunity for employees and employers to be exposed to so many different experiences and creative ideas because of the virtual collaboration that didn’t exist 5–10 years ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

In manufacturing, there is tremendous potential for employers to fill the large number of open roles with talented people, but they can’t find them. As the economy bounces back, the safety net needs to be about reskilling and re-education. My belief is that people don’t want to be taken care of, they want to be given opportunities.

There are many people who are unemployed, but there are also a significant number of job openings. The imbalance is caused by the mismatched skill set. For example, someone who used to work in the hospitality industry might have the right skills to work for a factory’s customer services department — they just don’t realize it.

The manufacturing industry is really built for this mismatch, because we have apprenticeships to reskill people. But the industry also needs to re-educate people on what it means to work in manufacturing. Many think that the only opportunities are low-skilled work, but that’s not the case. There is ample opportunity for people to work with sophisticated technologies to build aircrafts and other exciting world-changing products, but many outside the manufacturing sector don’t realize it.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

In our industry, we’ve been talking about digital transformation for many years. But there really hasn’t been a big motivation for factories to change. They have become comfortable with their manual spreadsheets, daily emails with suppliers, and weekly shortage meetings in the “war room.” To me, the optimism is that digital transformation has now shifted from a “nice-to-have” to an impactful initiative that will give supply chain teams more time to be strategic contributors

Companies now want to become more advanced in the deployment of AI-driven workflows. We’re seeing it happen with our own customers. They are realizing the need to transform their businesses to use advanced technology, to automate mundane work, and to enable better collaboration around accurate, real-time information. Because of this, we’re going to see a huge spike in efficiency and quality gains, and we’ll have more people innovating in ways that we never thought possible before.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

It’s about reskilling and looking at commonalities among workers in different industries. For example, manufacturers who need to find detail-oriented workers can look to seamstresses or accountants who possess this quality. But that doesn’t mean we can just transfer people from one job to another overnight. Instead, this gives us a base to make the reskilling go faster. It’s about looking for the skill sets that matter and having enough of those skills to get people up and running quickly in a new job. This ultimately solves for the gap between job loss and job creation much faster.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Artificial intelligence will improve the repetitiveness of work. This technology will create an opportunity for people to do value-added skills and leave automation to deal with the more mundane activities. AI is also great for the workforce because it will increase productivity and make the actual work that people do more interesting and rewarding.

Technology will be used to create more collaboration. It’s not about just Slack or video conferencing. It’s how you link analytics and information with collaboration so people are really solving problems together.

Supply chain silos will disappear. It used to be that one factory made everything. Now you can have 8–10 tiers of suppliers to make just one final product but with no collaboration. Today, technology is enabling siloed operations to work more synchronously with one another, resulting in true network optimization.

The definition of world-class expertise will evolve. The ability to connect great minds virtually has ushered in more opportunities to share best practices across people, organizations, and countries than ever before. For example, I’m part of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME). For years, we used to fly everybody in from Dallas, Canada, Europe, etc. to a centralized location to tour factories and share ideas. Now, we’re doing virtual tours of these factories, which enables more people to join and connect with one another from anywhere in the world.

Greater alignment of goals. Business will shift to make sure that everyone in their operations — from the top down — understands how their work directly links to the overall business goals. This becomes even more important with people working together from different locations. There is technology available today, including what we do at LeanDNA, to make this alignment even easier.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

“Make work easy for people.”

When I was doing advanced lean manufacturing, my Japanese partner at the time told me that it’s all about how to make work easy for that person. Everything that came out of Toyota and lean all started with that simple idea. If I make this job easier for that person, they will work faster and more efficiently, which drives productivity. And because that worker is more consistent with what they do, you get higher quality products.

This phrase that I first heard 30 years ago has always been a big part of what I’ve done. But it also drives our product at LeanDNA and what we do. It’s a simple concept, but not everyone does it. In fact, a lot of IT solutions today make work harder for people because it’s confusing, it’s not exactly what they need, or they’re not trained properly on how to use it. If you think about technology in the right way, your goal is very simple in that you just want to make the work easier for people.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve always been intrigued by Elon Musk as an innovator, and he becomes so much more interesting when you learn about him personally. He’s had to overcome a lot in order to revolutionize so many areas of the world. He’s successfully executed on innovation, which is not an easy thing to do.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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