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Learning Lessons in Uncertain Times

Apr 6, 2020

Change management and lean, your time is now.

We are living through some crazy, challenging and uncertain times. I am sitting here working from home because, like many of you, in the wake of COVID-19 our company is doing what it can to ensure employee safety and has encouraged us to keep our distance, work remotely if we can. That’s on top of the other social distancing techniques many of us are being encouraged to follow.

It’s not business as usual, and it has got me thinking. We at IndustryWeek  publish a lot of content about change management, and the perspective of that content is typically that of the person or entity driving the change. It makes sense.  Our audience is manufacturing leadership, who are the folks typically  driving the change.

In this instance of the coronavirus, many—perhaps even most of us—are instead the recipients of change, unexpected, unwanted, thrust upon us. And where that change will take us remains unclear.

This thought was in my head as IW received some fresh change-management-related content from Jeff Nevenhoven, a principal consultant with Life Cycle Engineering. He has written quite a few articles on change that we have been delighted to run on our website over the past few years.

In an email, I mentioned to him the irony of being on the other side of change.

He wrote back: “On one side of the coin, we tend to approach change in a very technical/structured manner; however, on the other side of the change coin, it can be an emotional rollercoaster full of mystery, ups, downs, twist and loops as we move through each phase of change. The sides of a coin can be very far apart!”

He also noted that change—big and small—is a part of life.

“We can’t lose sight that change is constant while reminding ourselves that we can, have and will again, adapt and change. We need to keep things (change) in perspective,” Nevenhoven wrote.

Where Lean Fits In

And speaking of change, times of crisis may be when lean shines most brightly. Lean practitioner, author and Lean Enterprise Institute contributor Michael Balle recently wrote a substantial piece on this topic. One point he made that sticks with me is this: “Although lean might seem fragile to crises, because of low inventories, it’s quite the opposite. Lean thinking is about training to solve small crises—problems—daily. When the real tsunami hits, mental habits about reacting and learning from one’s reactions, relationships and coordination reflexes are in place to better deal with outage and its consequences.”

That said, many manufacturing plants are shut down, but eventually they will rev up production once again. This downtime may be an opportunity for manufacturers to rethink or reimagine their lean strategies.

“There is a ton of structure that goes into a working lean management system and a lot of this can be laid while plants are down,” suggests Calvin Williams, CEO of Impruver Technologies and a long-time practitioner of continuous improvement. “Things like getting clear on the company’s purpose and what it’s trying to achieve (beyond just making money); establishing how success will be measured and communicated; designing leadership standard work routines that will keep leaders engaged in driving daily improvement in alignment with company strategy; training (online, of course); research on new processes, just to name a few. There’s a ton of planning and coaching work that leaders rarely have the opportunity to pull away and get done.”

Williams also noted that “the COVID-19 outbreak has taught us all that adaptability is the name of the game.” It’s a lesson we are all learning if we didn’t know it before.

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