How to succeed at digital transformation

How to Succeed at Digital Transformation: Lessons from Chief Information Officer of GE Aviation David Burns

David Burns is an experienced Chief Information Officer at GE Aviation with proven track record of successfully applying digital solutions within complex, global enterprises to drive business transformations. He shares his best advice for other senior executives on how to successfully implement digital transformation. 

What do you think are three essential ingredients for a successful digital transformation?

To be successful in a digital transformation you have to have an open-mind approach to how you do it and be willing to accept ideas wherever they come from in the organisation. I think that’s first and foremost, because if you look at the traditional large organisations, where deep domain expertise with 20/30 years of experience was the thing that gave you credibility, the reality is in the digital world great ideas can come from relatively young talent in the organisation that can attack the problem in a non-traditional way. Therefore, the first thing to focus on developing is definitely open-mindedness.

The second thing I consider essential to a successful digital transformation is perpetual curiosity – having an appetite for learning. We have to maintain that deep expertise and think through how that expertise is applied, but we always have to be learning. Technology is changing at a pace faster than business is used to changing and I think leaders need to be constantly thinking through how they can ensure they’re being curious enough and looking on the periphery to find opportunities to drive disruption.

The third thing I’d say is having the willingness to fail. By nature, digital transformation pushes you into unchartered territories and you’re not going to get it right the first time. And that’s ok. As a leader, you have to be able to underwrite failure, take risk, and find things to learn along the way, adjusting your plan and approach accordingly.

As a leader of digital transformation at GE, what would be your advice to those trying to get a buy-in for such project from their teams?

Change is hard for people and you have to go into it recognising that.  But one way to motivate change is ensuring people understand the risk of not doing so. At the end of the day, the world is moving forward and the pace at which the world is moving forward is accelerating so you need to make sure that critical decision makers are aware that if you’re standing still, in reality, you’re moving backwards. The other thing I try to do when influencing the key stakeholders is making sure they understand what’s possible. When you’re talking about people who work in manufacturing and supply chain, the proof is in what they see. The more tangible examples of digital transformation in action, the more momentum you’ll get behind it. Sometimes people get set in their ways and are comfortable with what they understand and talking about digital transformation theoretically doesn’t necessarily help. But when a supply chain leader can see digitised supply chain in action, not just a demo of a software, and see a manufacturing facility operating in a different form and fashion than what they’ve been used to, that I found to be the biggest motivator for people. It’s a great way to build advocacy and help people realise the potential benefits of your vision.

What’s your top advice for extracting valuable insights with Big Data to improve customer experience?

I’ll go back to what I said in the first question. It’s about having an open mind. If you go in thinking you understand the big data you’re inherently limiting your ability to gain useful insights. More and more we define data science techniques and bring silo data sets of information that we’ve never been able to look at together. Bringing those together allows us to uncover information about our operations that we didn’t know was available before and really helps identify unanticipated insights. But it’s also important for people to know that big data is not a silver bullet. Ultimately all of this, and the digital transformation need to be grounded in a foundation of continuous process improvement and process excellence. That’s critical, because ultimately if you have sustainable process excellence in your operations collecting data, and then you bring that data together with data science techniques, that’s where you’re going to find big opportunities in your data operations.

One of the things that our aviation business has done is they brought together cross-functional teams of individuals looking at data in a way we’ve never traditionally have and that’s enabled us to harness insights into how we are operating that were previously never available. So I think another part of tackling big data is keeping in mind that, to leverage big data effectively, you have to look at it from a different perspective across the company, which means breaking down traditional organisational silos.

How do you decide which teams to involve in this process?

Ultimately, we start with the problem we’re trying to solve, really making sure we have a clear articulation of what is the business outcome we’re trying to achieve, what is the business problem we’re trying to drive and make sure we’re tackling those problems with all constituents in the business that touch that process in their respective areas, whether it’s engineering, manufacturing, IT or finance. Wherever they may sit in the organisation, if they touch the process they need to be involved in helping to understand, through the data, what’s really happening.

What is your biggest challenge in your role?

I’d say one challenge is, everyone wants to be digital right now, it’s kind of the buzz, but most people don’t understand what that means. Therefore, getting people deep enough into what it takes to drive digital transformation is important. I talked earlier about continuous process improvement. Sometimes people just assume “I’m going to use this digital tool and it’s going to solve all my problems.” That’s not the reality. It has to be coupled with process improvement that is accelerated through digital tools, but driving that process change is key, and people lose sight of that, thinking the digital solutions are going to be the magic bullet. I’m constantly trying to make sure people understand that when we talk about digital it’s as much about driving process change and process improvement and the way we think and operate as it is about the digital tools itself.

How do you prioritize among the wealth of opportunities that current exponential technologies present to neither start too early nor too late?

The first thing I’d say is tapping into the people that are passionate about their respective areas and letting them play with those technologies, giving them room and capacity for it in a safe environment, maybe on the fringe of some of the business operations, within areas where it’s ok to fail. That’s where you’re going to get accelerated learning. You can have a lot of software companies and consultants come in, talking to you about what technology can do. The reality is you’ve got to get smart people playing with, and experiencing the technology to unlock the potential. We’re always looking at what we believe the return on investment is going to be, where we think there is going to be benefits to justify it. To do that, we have to look at two aspects. The first one is: Is the technology mature enough? Is it ready to scale? Is it ready to operate in our type of environment? The second thing you have to look at is whether the organisation is ready to accept it? That’s something you have to constantly keep your eyes on. When we did our strategic planning last year, we identified six disruptive technologies that we thought could evolve and change the way we work. Throughout the year, we conducted safe pilots at the fringe of our businesses, we learnt about those technologies, we better understood where the value was going to be realised and what technologies may be a bit too early in their cycle. It’s all about this strategic approach about technologies we experiment with and from those experiments we understand which ones we want to move forward with speed, which ones we want to hold in place and which ones we won’t continue to invest in and pivot away from.

What are the main digital tools and techniques you use in your current role?

I think an important aspect of digital transformation is to understand that it doesn’t mean you can get away from the core foundational systems that run your business like enterprise resource planning systems. Those systems are a critical enabler of digital transformation and what we really looked at doing is where can we take our foundational systems that run our business and augment those with either new software technologies that we developed internally or use external software provider that provides the level of insight and capability or process enablement that’s not traditionally available through the traditional software vendors.

And how do you ensure that the new systems introduced are in synch with what’s already in place?

This risk is a very real one. When I’m talking with our manufacturing and supply chain leaders, I always bring them back to their value stream maps. You have to go back to good lean operations in supply chain. You really have to be able to say “What’s the value stream map, what’s the information flowing through that value stream map and what are the tools that are enabling that information to flow through your value stream map and make sure that, by introducing new technology, you are not creating a silo of information that’s hid in the flow of information through your value stream. I always bring them back to the tools supporting the fundamental business process. Start with the business process, understand how information flows through that business process and then make sure any new technology you’re introducing is accelerating the flow of information in that value stream map and breaking down the barrier in that map versus creating a barrier.

How do you optimise costs and stocks?

We use traditional IRPs to manage our inventory probably like everyone else does. But what we found is that sometimes in businesses there can me multiple IRPs or, because of the complexity in IRPs, they hide and make it difficult to find insights. One of the things we’ve done is created a data lake, which is helping us pull together disparate data sources from across the organisation and that’s helping us stitch data together in ways we haven’t been able to before and identify opportunities to take either cost out of the system or inventory levels. We’ve created material visibility tool inside of our company that helps a supply chain leader look across the business, understand when material is coming into the factory earlier than needed, or a situation where you’ve got material coming into the line after it’s needed. Following this analysis, we can easily adjust purchase orders with suppliers and manufacturing plants to optimise when that material gets delivered to the floor. If you think about it, in a consumer world, the Facebooks of the world give you recommendations of actions to take – and that’s really where we’re trying to get to – how do you provide people insights but then also recommended actions that they can take to improve the decisions and the material flow in the operations.

Which companies do you learn from?

In the company of the size and scale as GE, we’re pretty big on it ourselves. We have the unique opportunity to learn from each other. We have knowledge sharing forums set up across the company to share lessons learnt from lean process transformations, digital process transformations, digital tools that are working and not working in the company, so that’s one way we try to accelerate learning within the business. The second thing I’d say is we try to spend time with start-ups, looking at companies that are nimble and trying to disrupt our manufacturing and supply chain processes and see if we have the opportunity to learn from them as well as to leverage their capabilities to drive efficiencies into our operations. The third thing is looking at respected firms outside of our companies or outside of our industries where we can learn from what they do. Personally, I spend time with companies like Harley Davidson and BMW last year, understanding how they drive continuous process improvement in their operations and understand what digital tools are available or not available to them and it gives you the ability to make sure you’re looking from an outside-in perspective, what can you learn from others. It’s important to be a continuous learner and to be comfortable knowing that there is other great companies out there that we can learn from and apply their learnings and vice versa, trying to share learnings back in return.

And how do you seek and share knowledge on a more day-to-day basis?

We have a forum set up for all supply chain leaders across the company and get together on a regular basis. I work with all the supply chain leaders of all the GE businesses, we have a monthly best practice sharing forum, where, from around the globe, we get individuals together to talk about lessons learnt from deploying tools or from lean process improvement. We use collaboration tools to help connect individuals, because, in a lot of cases, you can set up a structure to drive knowledge sharing, but nothing will accelerate the dissemination of information as much as passionate individuals connecting to other passionate individuals, and that’s another thing we try to do with our collaboration tools.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One thing I would just underline is, going into a digital transformation, you’re not going to get it right the first time, and a lot of the times that’s scary. In companies, failure is viewed negatively, but you will never learn as fast as you do when you fail a couple of times. I look at what we’ve done in our digital transformation, we’ve made a lot of good decisions and we’ve had a couple missteps along the way too. But what I would say is that if we put our smartest people in the company in a room for two weeks, they would have never come up with the right answer of how to successfully transform our operations to be more digital. It was only through the application of the theories and understanding which theories work and which don’t, that we were able to really drive benefits. So my biggest takeaway to people is – you just got to try. And you have to be ok with not getting it right the first time. But if you don’t try, you’ll never figure it out.

If you liked this article, you will also enjoy John Rossman’s guide on how to lead digital transformation: https://theleadershipnetwork.com/article/leading-iot-strategy

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