No-code tools are both a product and an enabler of the new economy. In the minds of outsiders, they evoke cliches associated with the technology sector: Company names that sound like they were randomly generated by AI, soaring stock prices, startups dwarfing century-old established firms in valuation and a new breed of twenty-something founders who tell business people at least twice their age what they should do to be successful. For some people, the no-code movement is just a fancy way of producing toy-like apps for smartphones and nothing more than one of those bubbles we come across every few years.
Nevertheless, this time it is different. Recent signs tell us that people outside the tech industry have taken note of the transformative power of no-code. The manufacturing industry, always looking to integrate new technology into existing processes, could not remain indifferent in the face of efficiencies no-code is promising to unlock and is increasingly making use of no-code tools. The fact that decades-old companies in century-old business segments are turning to no-code platforms gives further credence to capabilities of no-code and proves that it is not a passing fad as some try to make it out to be. In this blog post and the next, we will take a look at what kind of a role no-code platforms are slated to play for manufacturing companies. But, first of all…
Introduction of no-code tools into the manufacturing industry will not be the first time it has adopted a new approach in a wholesale manner to remain competitive. In the 1980s and 1990s, the inspiration came from Japan. Concepts such as lean (just-in-time) manufacturing, kaizen, kanban, genchi gembutsu and Five Whys, which had combined to create an industrial giant out of the ashes of World War II in Japan in the past, were imported to the U.S.
We owe most of this to two Japanese engineers. Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) was a Japanese industrial engineer and innovator who is credited with laying down the principles of Japanese scientific management. Eric Ries, in his book The Lean Startup, describes him as “the father of the Toyota Production System”, which was developed in 1930s (Ries, 2011, p.230). The concepts like Five Whys (a logical tool for root cause analysis) (Ries, 2011, pp.229-40) and Muda (‘7 Wastes’ or sources of productivity loss) that he popularized later became inspiration for concepts like lean manufacturing and just-in-time in the U.S. Shiego Shingo (1909-1990), on the other hand, helped codify the Toyota Production System and introduced what is today known as the SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Dies) (Ries, 2011, p.186). SMED is a collection of practices that reduces machine changeover times from hours to single-digit minutes after a certain process. With machine changeover becoming less tedious, the manufacturer is able to work with smaller batches, better respond to the customer demands and rely on less inventory.
Ohno and Shingo together revolutionized the Japanese manufacturing industry and inspired a tide of innovations that changed the American industrial landscape in the last quarter of the twentieth century. These concepts imported from or inspired by Japanese business leaders prioritized nurturing a relationship of trust with suppliers and focused on building quality into the production processes, swift response when something went wrong and empowerment of frontline employees to inspect and correct faulty production (they all deserve a look—look them up if you are interested scientific management and business strategy). Although claiming that these concepts democratized the Japanese business environment would be an exaggeration (it remained quite patriarchal), these concepts elevated the status of the employees and empowered them to make decisions on their own. They were like a much-needed update to the Taylorist scientific management principles of the past. The results were astounding. Production cycles got shorter, employee morale improved and warranty payments resulting from low quality products significantly decreased, helping the corporate bottom line.
Decades later, we stand at the threshold of another transformation, but the goals remain the same. Companies still strive to reduce production cycles, boost employee morale and cut down costs, but in an entirely different context. This time, the manufacturing industry is trying to cope with the impact of a pandemic and adapt to a future where automation, data collection and analysis and connectivity will be the key determinants of success. The companies that can adapt will see their prospects improve, while the ones that can’t will fall by the wayside.
“Employee empowerment” has become trendy once again. Today, domain experts, people with deep knowledge in their respective fields of work, are well-positioned to take on more responsibilities than their predecessors. They are armed with no-code tools and stand at the forefront of the digital assault, taking the initiative to solve problems rather than looking for instructions from upper management. How no-code is putting into action what Ohno and Shingo preached will be the subject of our next blog post. Stay tuned.