In 1996, I joined financial services company GE Capital Services (GEC) in a Master Black Belt role, helping implement Lean Six Sigma practices. For 10 years prior to that, I had been building a career in manufacturing and operations leadership. From day one at GEC, I noticed a real difference between what I had experienced in manufacturing and what I was now seeing on the new job.

"Today, there are a myriad of modest to overpowering solutions to help you frame hypotheses and find patterns in your data"

I observed that members of the Services business unit were locked in on the performance of the company. Somehow, their individual fates were tied to the fate of the organization. But perhaps, more importantly, there was real visibility into the performance of the company, the health of customer accounts, and wins/losses on active proposals. For me, it was enlightening to find that, for example, the receptionist not only knew that the President was away attending a customer meeting, but she was also able to articulate the importance of that meeting to GEC’s growth objectives. Consequently, she was driven to offer her support by professionally engaging those customers when they called or visited. In a word, every team member was engaged. That full employee engagement translated into better solutions and business performance. Ever since my early days at GEC, I have been trying to replicate that level of engagement in the organizations I have led or supported.

I use that story as a basis for this article because it’s such a powerful example of an engaged workforce. The good news for manufacturers is that there’s a path that enables you to replicate that level of engagement for the betterment of your company. It’s called technology. The investment in technology is a key leverage point for bringing about that desired state. The three technology-based keys are to: harness the bountiful data that exists in your business, recruit powerful visualization tools, and unleash innovative techniques for collaboration. These keys enable you to garner a level of engagement that can accelerate operational improvements and ignite new product development programs. Operational improvements and new products ultimately translate into real business growth.

Every company in every industry has to make tough investment decisions around ways to harness the abundance of data that is becoming available via IoT platforms and components. The same applies for machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. As you assess your choices, be sure to make your solution/technology decision based on the outcomes you intend to drive, and only buy enough technology to deliver on that objective. More troubling is the fact that if you over spend, you’ll crowd out other investments, fail to deliver outcomes, and hinder your drive to garner company-wide engagement. Again, focus on the outcomes that your business is looking to make a reality, such as ROI, customer satisfaction, or equipment uptime. Then, invest in delivering the appropriate data that will allow you to address that focus. Once your data strategy is planned, move on to data analytics or visualization.

The second key for manufacturers navigating a journey to greater employee engagement in business performance and growth is the analytical assessment of the data you’ve harnessed. Nothing comes of that aggregated data without it being translated into real insights. Today, there are a myriad of modest to overpowering solutions to help you frame hypotheses and find patterns in your data. While focusing on the outcome you are trying to achieve, be sure to complement it with an honest assessment of the real analytical capability of the employees who are leveraging the data to determine the best solution. Harnessing the data, and then evaluating it through a problem-appropriate tool, sets the stage for the final key, which is driving collaborative debate over the problem and its solutions.

In 2013, Ryder faced an issue that manifested itself throughout the industry. There was a rapid and unexplained increase in the maintenance costs of a heavy-duty truck. All of the primary players in the industry saw the same thing, but we addressed it in the spirit I noted above. We gathered the appropriate data, framed a couple of hypotheses based on what we were experiencing, ran the analysis, and then brought together smart minds to debate the analytics and decide on the right options with which to go forward. In any review/debate, we would have people across the company in varying position levels—from a technician to Ryder’s CEO—engaged in trying to understand the problem and framing a solution. There’s broad consensus around the company that no single person or department would have gotten to the same comprehensive answers and improvements in the time we did as a group. Coming to a solution that enabled us to contain costs, we successfully illustrated to our customers the tremendous value of our thought leadership and operational improvement capabilities. While there are tools (i.e. SharePoint) and techniques (i.e. rapid deployment) that enable real collaboration, it’s of greater importance that you first focus on breaking down the departmental or divisional walls. This is ultimately what allows collaboration to flourish.

Many technical leaders who read this article may incorrectly interpret the message here to be that it’s the responsibility of the operational leaders instead of the CIO or CTO and their teams. That’s understandable when you consider I am talking about driving engagement. However, if that’s the perspective you take, then you risk missing the essence of this commentary. To compete in this new digital reality, a company must understand that the role of the CIO and the entire technology team is changing. There’s an abundance of data and powerful visualization tools that allow teams to create and evaluate real hypotheses, and in order to win in this environment, the perspective of every team member must be embraced. In many circumstances, the depth of your collective experience, which you can bring to bear on real analytics, will be the only thing that differentiates you from upstarts and disruptors, who are only using data analytically without real pragmatic experience. It’s your responsibility to make your value add contributions. My opening analogy of my early observations at GEC should be your objective. Create an environment that engages the whole team and invites the voices and expertise of many to enable business outcomes that allow your company to succeed! Go forward, and aggressively breakdown any barriers to full community-level engagement, as your future success is going to require all hands on deck.