Well-designed technology, thoughtfully implemented, can improve operational effectiveness. But it cannot take the place of sound leadership and wisdom. Sadly, this cardinal principle is often overlooked in managements’ frequent quest for simple solutions to complex problems. Morgan Stanley estimates that U.S. companies wasted $130 billion on unneeded software and technology in the past 2 years, according to a recent report in USA Today.

Paradoxically, the technology intelligentsia who sell themselves as manufacturing experts don’t spend time on the shop floor learning about the operation to which their technology will be applied. Unfortunately, in their search for a quick fix, some managements are willing to accept these self-qualified experts unquestioningly and risk sacrificing their organizations on the technology altar.

Fortunately, there are those who recognize the perils inherent to misapplication of technology, and the liability of not encouraging and using input from those actually doing the work. The Associated Press recently reported that Boeing is developing a low-tech assembly line for 747 production; the first change in 747 assembly in over 30 years. Management recognized early on that the only way to make this work was to invite the employees to participate in developing the new process.

The Gannett News Service recently reported that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has come under major criticism by the U.S. Justice Department for its misuse of technology. After spending $31.2 million on technology over a 5-year period to track passengers at Philadelphia International Airport, there is little confidence that the technology is effective. In concluding that the project had not been properly managed and recommending that additional funding for this technology be cut off, the Inspector General stated "Technology alone is not sufficient to prevent the entry of terrorists into the United States." How true!

New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI, Freemont, CA) is a classic example. NUMMI was set up in 1984 by General Motors and Toyota as a joint venture auto assembly plant. In Time-and-Motion Regained (Harvard Business Review, Jan. 1, 1993), Paul S. Adler describes how the plant was transformed from being known as the "worst plant in the world" to GM’s most productive and quality-centered operation, rivaling Toyota plants in Japan.

This classic turnaround was accomplished in about 1 year with the same unionized workforce. Low-tech solutions, and the best of Freddie Taylor and Deming, were combined with effective leadership and workforce development. Abuse was eliminated and the old GM coercive management methods were not allowed to gain a foothold. The plant is still the most productive in the GM family.

The next time you think about bringing a technology consultant into your operation, ask how much that consultant knows about manufacturing beyond the software package he or she is peddling. Ask how much time will be spent observing operations. Ask how much time will be spent with the employees (not the managers) who will actually be using the technology, Most importantly, ask how the consultant plans to use input from those employees to develop a productive and profitable application of the proposed technology.

Use the answers to help ensure that the technology gives you measurable benefits instead of a headache.