Capturing Data Digitally: Has something been lost?

Before the digital revolution and Industry 4.0, it was emphasized that engagement in problem solving increased when associates tracked data and followed trends by hand.  This tactile engagement helped associates to see problems and their root causes more readily.  This eventually led them to become more creative problem solvers.  Assuming this approach was critical to successful continuous improvement, will capturing data digitally diminish effective problem solving?

Start by examining why tactile engagement is beneficial.  In an article from Neurorelay from August 7, 2013, “. . . the physical act of writing brings the information to the forefront and triggers your brain to pay close attention.”  In an article from the Web Writers Spotlight on December 31, 2020, “Various studies over the past couple decades have demonstrated that writing by hand makes use of large regions of the brain involved in language, thinking and working memory. So if your brain is getting more of a work out when you use your pen, it’s more likely your creative juices are flowing more generously as well.”

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At first glance, these facts about the benefits of writing would lead one to conclude that the shop floor should not be digitized, but rather associates should continue to capture and record data by hand.  Is this labor-intensive activity really value-added?  Given the highlighted science about the brain, the answer might be yes.  More instinctively, though, one should say no.  One should look at the manual tracking and trending of data as an inefficient use of people’s time.  This leads to a question: “How should one engage associates who work on the shop floor to fully leverage their process knowledge and creativity if manual data collection and trending is eliminated?”

To look at this question, one must go beyond the task of tracking and trending data and look at the processes of which this it is a part.  Why is data tracked and plotted?  Data is tracked and plotted to ensure customer requirements are satisfied.  Targets are set and the process is measured against these targets to ensure requirements are being met.  If customer requirements are not met, then the company’s problem-solving process should engage to determine the root cause of the failure, followed by an action to eliminate the root cause.

If the labor-intensive activity of data collection and data trending is eliminated through digitalization, how does one engage the associates to get the full benefit of their process knowledge and creativity?  This should be done in the actual problem-solving process itself not in the data collecting and trending activity.

In a digital world, the data should be collected and trended automatically.  Results are automatically compared to the targets (or standards) and the team is alerted when the process is trending out-of-control.  This is where the problem-solving process starts, and this is where the tactile engagement should also begin.

A team is brought together to address the identified problem.  The first thing the team should do after defining the problem is go to the gemba (where the problem exists), pen and paper in hand, and observe.  They should write down their observations about the process to be used in the problem-solving process.

Rather than wasting time collecting and trending data, associates should be challenged creatively in the value-added process of problem solving.  Following the science about the human brain, using pen and paper to document one’s observations once the problem has been digitally identified reapportions the associates’ time to use their brains and creativity to better serve the customer.

There are some added benefits to capturing data digitally.  First, for similar processes or for different timespans, benchmarking can be done efficiently.  This benchmarking can lead to identifying the best practices or the best processes allowing these “bests” to be shared.  Second, digitizing data and trends and making this information available visually and in real-time should allow associates to react more quickly to changes in the process that no longer meet customer requirements.

Has something been lost when data is captured digitally?  The answer should be “no” if reorienting associates’ time previously spent on data collection and trending is oriented towards observation and problem solving.  In addition, most people will find engaging in problem solving more rewarding than engaging in data collection.  There is great benefit in writing things down to drive creativity and critical thinking.  Engage associates in going to the gemba, observing the process where the problem is occurring, and documenting what they observe using pen and paper.  Not only should one gain better solutions to root causes, but the other benefits from digitalization as well.

Haven’t started digitalization yet?  The payback is real.  It makes good business sense to digitize your data capture.  What are you waiting for?  Get started and become more effective and more efficient at meeting your customer’s needs.


About the Author: Mike Ungar is a Certified FocalPoint Business Coach and Trainer.  He has 35 years of experience with Michelin in manufacturing and human resources.  Mike is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Clemson MBA program.

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