The Critical Connection Between Digital Transformation and Sustainable Continual Improvement

A "Food for Thought" Article

John Q. Todd, Total Resource Management, Inc. (TRM)

The Critical Connection Between Digital Transformation and Sustainable Continual Improvement

The transformation of our businesses from paper to digital is nothing new. What is new is the scope of what can and should be made digital. What was not even considered a candidate for digitization five years ago is now just another record in a database waiting to be retrieved for analysis. A casual picture of a leaking valve from a smartphone texted to a supervisor is now a critical maintenance record! Whether you are being forced into it because of market or regulatory forces or it has become a way of life at your company, you must have a strategy. 
Let's define some terms.

Digital Transformation is…

Moving all or significant portions of the business from manual or paper-based data collection, to fully computerized… and the refined use of that data for decision making. The result is that XYZ is an order of magnitude better, and lots of people are doing their jobs differently.

Continual Improvement is…

Beneficial and measurable changes to business operations are implemented over time. Efforts are specific and run their course. Pauses are strategic to allow the impact of changes to be seen.

What are We Talking About? 

Continuing to improve, aka transforming, your business requires strategically managing your people, processes, and programs (technology).
Taking advantage of all that "digital transformation" can bring to your business will certainly keep you on the path of continued improvement. Digital transformation is far beyond just putting stuff in a database. It involves managing the changes needed to your people, processes, and the programs they use to benefit the business.
We purposely sent technology to the back of the diagram. While important, its role is to support the other two and is the last to be considered.

In the Context of Maintenance and Reliability…

There are many approaches, software tools, and consulting firms that can help with pieces of your digital transformation. It is to your benefit to have a consistent team that will be with you from the beginning and support you well after the initial implementation. Plan for this process to take a full year to see tangible results. This is a long-term relationship. It could take less time, but it should take at most a year. Otherwise, you risk losing steam and tossing another failed project on the ash heap.

How has "Work" Transformed?

Let's start with a little fun looking back at how work has changed over the years.
What we find interesting is that what used to be work (and necessary for survival) is now, in many cases, leisure or hobby activity.
The point? Work transformation is ongoing and rapid. What we do, who does it and the tools we use are in constant motion. We've gone from swinging jawbones to clicking a mouse.

Questions To Ask:

  • Does putting a tablet full of mobile applications into the hands of a person in the field digitally transform their job?
  • Unless the features/functions and how this new tool will be used have been well thought out, it will likely end up on the truck's dash.
  • You might get more data, but its quality will continue to be unhelpful when making decisions.
  • Cool feature… not so practical. Example: Scanning barcodes in low light
The point? Just throwing technology into your path with little thought is only sometimes helpful.
Do you believe you and your team(s) are miserable failures who are not doing anything right?
  • Most likely, you and your team(s) are doing good work already.
  • Are there areas in need of improvement or transformation? Of course.
  • Is the "improvement roadmap" visible to everyone who is supposed to be involved?
The point? You are doing some good things. Keep those. Toss the rest. Move forward.
Do you (or your management) use available data to measure performance against goals?
  • Maybe. Perhaps you/they wish the data was "better."
  • Some collected data might not ever be used. A waste.
  • Is there missing data? "If only we knew…"
The speed and volume of data collection are not nearly as important as the usefulness of the data to the business. Are you in a bad place and need to be elsewhere? You need a strategy.
You are on a path, good or bad, with activities helping you, whether in parallel or series, and some are in your way. You are trying to get to the goal of making good data-based decisions. You need a plan to keep going or make a course correction. Do you do singular process improvements or complete transformations? Will the expected results of the improvements fund the effort?

Is Any of This Proof That You Need to Adjust?

  • More complex equipment and monitoring systems? Remote ops?
  • Brain drain? Your experts are retiring.
  • New staff expectations of technology and cost of training, and then they don't stick around?
  • Safety implications of the above?
  • Cost of contract labor?
  • Planning and Scheduling are more complex, more variables?
  • Difficulty in identifying unnecessary work?
  • False positives? (Reacting to alerts that turn out insignificant)
  • Knowing that 99% of the data produced by your equipment is not being used?
  • The lack of time to find where the waste of time and money are?

The Process of Digital Transformation is a Set of Workstreams

Workstreams are complementary and strategic efforts to achieve the goal(s). Digital transformation is far beyond just putting stuff in a database. It involves managing the changes needed to your people, processes, and the programs they use to benefit the business. Keep the good/right things – toss the not.
EAM digital transformation goal/work effort uses these workstreams:
  • Organizational Change Management
  • Business Process
  • Master Data
  • Technology implementation/configuration
Digital transformation is a process that you may already be going through and will continue well into the future. Together, the workstreams form your strategy to progress along the transformation path, given that the goals are well in view.

Goals and Their Connection to Transformation

Let's pause and talk about goal setting. You must have defined and measurable goals! What are the overall company goals, and what improvements are needed?

Overall Company Goals

  • Stakeholders – financial, environmental, societal, etc.
  • Sales
  • Regulatory
Local Goals (related to the company goals)
  • Budgets
  • Regulatory
  • Production / reliability
Suppose your company is on a mission to improve itself and has set goals to achieve. In that case, it is logical that your efforts towards those goals will require either continued digital transformation or the establishment of a strategy to achieve them. Digital transformation is a strategy with several workstreams that need to run in parallel to achieve the desired results. This is going to be a long-term relationship.

Tangible Business Outcomes

You must be able to see, touch, hear, or smell the change! Tangible changes are the best to aim for.
  • True and strong interconnections between your people, processes, and programs
  • Greatly reduced (or even eliminated) manual data capture and entry by your staff
  • Fully developed and understood KPIs and metrics for decision-making
  • Measurable increase in equipment reliability over time
  • Long-term reduction in maintenance costs
  • Refined business processes that support your people that are reflected in your programs
  • Standards, best practices, and uniformity of work tasks are in place across the enterprise

After the strategy, OCM is critically essential. You are changing the way the business operates, and that involves People! You are changing the business, in some cases, dramatically. Don't let it break down part way through the process!
Any assessment needs to cover far more than just computer systems. In fact, the people and processes you rely upon to run your business are either your greatest assets or greatest roadblocks. The readiness of these crucial elements for change is a key estimation to make before starting this process.
Assessments cover:
  • Asset / reliability management
  • Work / maintenance management
  • All supporting elements such as purchasing and inventory
  • Safety, planning, finance, IT, etc.
  • Coaching needs and opportunities

Processes and Data

Maximize the insights from your assessment results. Small refinements in people, pocesses, or software tools can lead to dramatic improvements. Simple adjustments like better timing or clearer notifications might drive significant digital transformation.
Give your team time to adapt to changes before making them permanent. Be prepared for the assessment to indicate that substantial work is needed for a true digital shift. With advancing technology, your current business practices may need to evolve.
Consider adopting "best practices" directly to avoid the challenges of transitioning from old methods. It's beneficial to trial changes through proof of concept or pilot programs to gauge their effectiveness and practicality.
Even established manual processes aided by simple software tools can benefit from enhancements. This transition might be uncomfortable, but leveraging strong processes and existing data will reveal improvement opportunities and guide your move towards a fully digital environment.

What are Data Standards?

You may have industry-specific data standards to follow, or you can take advantage of the work of others to your benefit. Very often, there is a standard you can follow vs. developing your own. It can be very industry-specific but can be useful across industries. Some examples:
  • National Stock Number (NSN)
  • Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standards (VMRS)
  • GEIA-STD-0007 (Government Electronics)
  • UNIFORMAT – Facilities Condition Assessment
  • CoBIE (Construction-Operations Building Information Exchange)
  • P&ID – Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams
  • Vehicle Telematics – various vendor standards (Verizon, FuelMaster, etc.)
  • PunchOut – eCommerce transaction standard
The list goes on…

What is Data Governance?

Go from "poor" data to "good" data… Then keep it that way!
If you do not implement methods to govern your data, you will end up right back where you started — with bad data.
  • Know the data you need for decision-making
  • Refine your processes and programs to capture that data as efficiently as possible
  • Educate your staff so they know why the data is important
  • Document the data and its sources
  • Document how is it used, and by who
  • Document the scope, boundaries, filtering of data
  • Review and adjust as the business changes

Finally, Technology!

Translate your proven refinements into design requirements for the necessary software tools. Some existing tools may need updates, while current market offerings might provide extensive functionality to replace many of your current systems.
Your strategy should outline the system and technology requirements for your digital transformation. Map the assessment results to specific requirements, combining assessments and requirements to save time.
Ensure flexibility in your solutions to adapt to changing needs, avoiding the long-term costs of rigid systems.
Incorporate the selection of software tools into your refinement process. By this stage, you'll know what changes to make, the tools to help, and the implementation requirements. Focus now on the implementation plan, as most decisions have been made and refined. Ideally, the chosen vendor has been part of this journey from the start.
Critical areas of your implementation:
  • Leveraging box functionality
  • Reflection on your "best practice" business processes in the software tools
  • Integration of your systems for seamless data flow and capture
  • User business process and software training and support
  • Ongoing change management for both processes and software
  • Decision made: On-prem and/or in the cloud implementation
The goal of implementation is not just reducing clicks but enabling users to perform meaningful work efficiently. Tedious and error-prone data collection is automated, capturing critical business data seamlessly.
Businesses continuously evolve their processes. If your software reflects these processes, you need a system to update the software as changes occur. Inefficiency arises when users must "work around" outdated software configurations.

What Does Success Look Like?

Computers are working harder than people! No feeding the beast! But there is no end! Here are several tangible outcomes:

  • Only useful, consistent, and reliable data is collected and presented for decision-making
  • Manual administrative work tasks are eliminated
  • Business status information is only a few clicks away
  • Nothing is handwritten
  • All work activity is visible in real-time
  • The Programs facilitate the flow of work
  • Organizational goals and performance against those goals are visible to all
Leverage or reuse your strategy to keep the improvements going.


It has been proven that an assessment is only as good as the next few times you do it! While the initial assessment gives you a great deal of information to act upon, it is really used to provide a baseline for the future. By reassessing annually, you can see where you have made progress and where more work is needed. This is a critical element of our strategy… set a baseline and use it over time to have a clear picture of where you are.
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About the Author

John is currently a Senior Business Consultant with Total Resource Management (TRM) and has nearly 30 years of business and technical experience in Project ...