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Why (and How) We Believe Lean Can Help During Covid-19

by Lean Sensei Women
March 20, 2020

Why (and How) We Believe Lean Can Help During Covid-19

by Lean Sensei Women
March 20, 2020 | Comments (17)

(This article was primarily authored by Karyn Ross, with input and support from the Lean Sensei Women. The Lean Sensei Women are a group of experienced lean practitioners who take turns to discuss business and world topics with lean lenses.)

No matter who you are, what organization you work for, or at what level you are practicing Lean, we are all affected by COVID-19. And everyone in this world – our world – must do what they can to help. As Lean Sensei Women, we have put together some suggestions and ideas for your organization to use (and of course, you can apply many of them at home as well). They’re simple and easy, can be implemented quickly, and are all based on our lean principles of respect for humanity and continuous improvement.

How we believe lean can help during Covid-19 

The first, and most important thing, is safety, both physical and psychological: Whether physical safety in manufacturing, or psychological safety in services, or both, keeping team members and customers safe is always our first priority in Lean. Here are some suggestions to try:

  • Limit the number of people working and increase the distance between them:
    • Arrange for people to work remotely. If you can, schedule a test day to make sure that all your team-members have what they need to work remotely and that all IT systems can handle the load. Then PDCA continuously to close any gaps found. If you can’t schedule a test day, start your PDCA cycle from Day 1. Check in each day to find out what is working and what could be improved.
    • Add spacing: For teams that can’t work remotely, move desks or work stations away from each other, and space teams out. Make sure that you are following best practices from your local health authorities.
    • Provide point-of-use-cleaning supplies: Give each team-member their own hand-sanitizer and extra cleaning supplies to keep in their space. Make sure all areas are extra clean and tidy to avoid the spread of germs.
    • Teach people proper hand-washing techniques: And then make sure that they are using them!
    • Use PDCA to make changes in response to new government and organizational regulations.
  • Ensure the psychological safety of workers:
    • Treat people with respect: Make sure that customers are treating team members politely and respectfully, and that supervisors and managers are too. In times of stress, people don’t always act respectfully, so monitor the situation carefully.
    • Guard against overburden: Make sure that employees aren’t overwhelmed and overburdened by extra work in call centers, or where essential services takes place as in hospitals and medical clinics. What are some ways that you can provide stress-relief to those dealing with spikes in demand?
    • Make a plan to help team members that become ill: Create ways to check-in with team members who may become ill, or who are struggling with stress. Plan ahead and let team members know what you will do.

Checking in frequently with team members is more important now than ever: Whether your organization calls them huddles, daily stand-ups, or some other term, ‘checking in’ often is even more important in times of crisis than during normal operations. Here are some suggestions about how to do that:

  • Increase huddle frequency from daily to two or three times a day. In fact, you can even huddle hourly if needed!
  • ‘Check-in’ virtually! You can use video-chat or instant messaging groups for short, frequent check-ins. Then you can ‘see’ how people are feeling, while keeping a safe distance. Let remote workers know that normal household disruptions and children are allowed…and encouraged!
  • Remember to ‘check-in’ on your team’s morale and psychological well-being as well as whether work is being done for customers.
  • If you are the team leader, create ways to be at the gemba more than ever, while keeping safe distances. Using video and computers already located in gemba can work extremely well.
    • Encourage team members to continue to share new ideas to create solutions to problems that arise from quickly changing conditions such as reduced workforce, or supply chain disruptions.

Make sure that leadership is in alignment and that guidance is quickly communicated: No matter the size of your organization, in times of crisis it is even more important for leaders to be able to come together quickly, make decisions swiftly and communicate and follow-up on needed actions expediently. Here are our suggestions for leaders:

  • Deselect priorities that aren’t immediately necessary to managing the COVID-19 crisis and routine daily functions.
  • The COVID-19 situation is changing on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis. Do not rely on email for communication. Someone may miss an important email or there may be a delay responding. Utilize real-time communication methods, such as instant messaging, huddles, and video or audio conferencing.
    • Set up a central command-center, or in Japanese parlance ‘obeya’ or ‘big room,’ where everyone can meet and current status can be made visible.
    • If it is not possible, or safe, to do so in person, set up a virtual one! You can use virtual whiteboard technology if your organization has it already, or ones such as Miro, if your organization doesn’t.
      • Have frequent, quick leadership ‘check-ins’ to be able to adjust to changing situations at a moment’s notice.
    • Review your key products and service offerings and determine what your customers need most now. Make a plan for how to proceed with your most vital services if the number of team members are reduced due to illness or need to care for children or other relatives.
    • Make sure that frontline team members can easily communicate ‘up’ to leadership, any supply shortages, quality problems or customer concerns that need to be escalated.

Manage visually so everyone can easily see ‘out-of-standard’ conditions and problems: One of the easiest things that people can implement quickly and use easily, are simple visual management systems. These systems allow people to see, at a glance, when something is not right. Some suggestions for your organization to try:

  • Posters showing proper hand-washing and cleaning techniques
  • Check-lists to make sure that people have followed the proper hand-washing and sanitizing process!
  • Stickers, or other simple visuals on people’s badges to show that they have been fitted properly for N95 masks or other safety items
  • Review current product and service delivery standards to ensure new critical performance points have not arisen.
  • You can even use visuals to help team members communicate their feelings and stress levels. Monitor frequently while checking in.

 The Toyota Way, and Toyota Production system began during - and as a response to - tough times in Japan after World War II. Although Lean is often thought of as a system to solve already-known problems, it’s really a system to help us create new and better ways to work and new and better products and as a way to ‘revitalize’ the human spirit, communities, and organizations. And in tough times, like we are in now, we can all help by creating these new ways. Some things to think about…

  1. How could your organization make something that is scarce but needed? For example, if you are in a related industry, how could you make masks or gowns, even if you don’t now?
  2. How can your organization use its skills and products to help others? For instance, one of us is offering online classes to teach people how to do virtual lean coaching…something I’ve been doing for years!
  3. How can your organization help those who are negatively affected by COVID-19 either financially, or physically? For example, how can you support your local businesses or community members who are in need?
  4. How can your organization adjust how it delivers products and services? Many restaurants that previously did not, are now offering home delivery. And schools are delivering online classes for levels from elementary to college.

We’re all in this together. And we’ll all get through this together. As Lean Sensei Women, we’re happy to be able to share our suggestions. We also know that all of you have many great ideas. Ideas that will help, and ideas that will make things better. Please post those ideas and suggestions of how lean can help during COVID-19, in the comments below.


Coming from different continents, horizons and professions, the individuals who form Lean Sensei Women are all recognized lean Senseis, who help companies and organizations build sustainable growth through lean management. They believe in the development of people, respectful of both teams and environment, with a view to produce more value for customers and to society.

Catherine Chabiron: Board Member, Institut Lean France. Author of Notes from the Gemba in Planet Lean and executive lean coach.

Rose Heathcote: Author of Clear Direction and Making a Difference. Rose is personally dedicated to transformation in Africa, bringing change to organisations for the benefit of employees, customers, shareholders and the environment.

Lucy Liu: Currently the Head of Supply Chain Academy for Asahi Beverages, Australia and New Zealand. Over a 28-year stint with Toyota starting at the shop floor, she progressed to management roles include Australia TPS Office and Capability Development Department Manager.

Sandrine Olivencia: Lean sensei and member of Institut Lean France. Specialist in Obeya and product development expert for the digital world.

Cécile Roche: Lean sensei, member of the Institut Lean France, Lean Director of the Thales Group, and author of several books, in particular on Lean in Engineering.

Anne Lise Seltzer: Member of Institut Lean France. Lean Coach in Services and Support functions. Trainer for Lean & Learn at SOL France (learning organization).

Katie Anderson: Katie Anderson is a lean leadership coach and performance improvement specialist with over 15 years of experience. Katie is passionate about developing people's leadership, problem solving and coaching capabilities to support continuous improvement and organizational transformation.

Karyn Ross: An author of five books including The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: A Lean Coaching Workbook, Karyn is an artist and coach on a mission to "Help People Improve the World".

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17 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban March 20, 2020
6 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks for sharing this and for emphasizing both physical AND psychological safety.

On the topic of proper handwashing, there's a great opportunity to use the Training Within Industry method for teaching this (and other standardized work). Here is a video by Patrick Graupp of the TWI Institute:


Reply »

Rose Heathcote March 20, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks very much for the feedback and comment, Mark! Terrific. 

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Karyn Ross March 20, 2020

You are welcome, Mark! And yes, the video is a great 'visual' example!

Reply »

Miguel Angel Borrachero March 20, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Many thanks for all these ideas. Currently, i applied most of them according to our lean Culture here in Spain. But Before read the article I'm going to apply a news ones and reinforce some already apply to improve them.

Many Thank again.

Reply »

Karyn Ross March 20, 2020

Glad to hear that you have applied these already! If you use others, please post so we can all learn! Thank you!

David Johnston April 16, 2020

Video was pretty good but a couple of things that I noticed was one why was the water left running the whole time the instructor was demonstrating the technique of correctly washing our hands?

The water could and should be turned off except for when need to rinse and wash the hands. Much water was wasted.

Two. Why were they not wearing face masks as they were in very close proximity to each other?


Reply »

Scott K April 07, 2020

Really interesting article and I agree how Lean practices can really help in combatting Covid-19 within your facility.  We use our own Lean Metric Stand to post communication on the Safety Board.  Check out the board https://www.novoprecision.com/products/lean-metrics-stand/

Thanks for all your wonderful information and stay safe.




Reply »

Mitch Reaves April 07, 2020

Really like how there was a focus on the safety of employees and the adaptation of working from home. Knowing your leaders and company care about you goes a long way. Thank you all for putting this together!


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Karyn Ross April 12, 2020

You are very welcome, Mitch! 

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Karyn Ross April 12, 2020

Hi Scott!

Thanks for sharing! 


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Dennis Sowards April 07, 2020

Thank you for the useful suggestions and ideas for applying Lean in these challenging times. I did not see any comments about the waste if inventory and how to address it now? I have already heard some short sighted managers say that trying to keep the inventory levels down has now failed their companies and companies should always be building and maintaining large inventories. Please share your thoughts on this subject.

Reply »

Kithsiri de Silva April 08, 2020

Thanks for sharing. There are many appropriate lean tools such as 5S, Yamazumi which has been useful during the pandemic and as mentioned in the article respect for people has become more and more important.


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Shadley April 08, 2020

Most pertinent. Applicability of the principles are endless here in South Africa. "We're all in this together" and the fact that this aproach was originally a "response to tough times" ... 'after WW II" resonates so well. I'm inspired by the endless possibilities.

Thank you!

Reply »

Raechel A Rowland April 08, 2020

I definitely want to be a Lean Sensei Women when I grow up!! Thank you for this post ~ Raechel

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MaFe Avellaneda April 11, 2020

Thanks, very focus on the actual reality. And always thinkhing people first¡ I Will look for the virtual coaching ideas.

Reply »

Sean RICE May 05, 2020

How do you see the relevance of Lean principles, tools and techniques to help an organisation transition from 'unordered' situation to an 'ordered' one? I.e. as per the Cynefin framework

Reply »

robert macadam June 30, 2020

Thanks you for this interesting article.

We are just beginning to think about how we get back to ‘business as usual’ in the NHS. Except of course it won’t be business as usual for a long time - if ever. I won’t pretend that in my Trust general surgery were delivered a hammer blow by COVID in the same way our medical or anaesthetic colleagues were. The exhausted clinicians featured on TV were providing care in emergency departments, intensive care units and respiratory wards. Our admissions were way down – albeit that the patients that did come to the hospital were a whole lot sicker than we were used to. What we did have was a manpower crisis in the early weeks of the pandemic before testing was available with colleagues off with COVID symptoms or self-isolating as members of their households reported symptoms. And a lot of anxious clinicians.
We adapted, did what seemed to be sensible at the time and maintained a high quality emergency service throughout this period. Looking back, some of the things that worked best in my role as Clinical Director may have been unconsciously prompted by the reading I had done previously around Lean. Some adjustments were just common sense, but it’s fair to say that whilst in surgery we seemed to have a good grip on our workflow and a group of clinicians that were pulling in the same direction and were able to donate junior staff to harder-pressed services, other departments became - at times - a little more fractious.
This is what we did
· We held daily 8.15am stand-up meetings in our surgical assessment unit office, chaired by the Clinical Director for general surgery, attended by the Directorate Manager and Matron plus the rota coordinator and assessment unit ward manager and anyone else who wanted to attend,
· We had a set agenda that started with who was still off sick or had reported symptoms in the previous 24h
· We used a whiteboard to record absences and expected return dates, and those shielding
· Based upon the available staff we recorded on the whiteboard which clinicians were providing emergency cover for the next 24h at all levels from nurse clinician to on-call consultant, including any periods of cross cover
· We sent home anyone who was going to be needed for a night shift at short notice
· We published a spreadsheet of roles for the day for the 55 clinical staff in general surgery by 08.30 for both AM and PM sessions. The spreadsheet included mobile numbers, secretary’s extensions and pager numbers for all permanent and locum staff.
· We broke the 8 general surgical firms into two 4-person teams (red & blue) and roles (ward rounds and ward work) were allocated and carried out by these self-organising teams.
· The plan for the day was circulated electronically by WhatsApp to every member of the clinical staff plus the senior surgical nursing staff and rota-coordinators
Clinical staff could be doing one of a dizzying array of activities on any given day as general surgery elected to continue urgent cancer surgery during the pandemic – on-call emergency work; urgent elective theatre; urgent endoscopy; scheduled zero day; nights; compensatory leave; annual leave; ward care red team; ward care blue team; fixed ward-based care; out-patient clinic; out of trust; study leave; post-take round; high dependency unit cover; carrying a mobile to provide GP advice and of course there were those on sick leave; self-isolating or with carers leave. When all commitments were covered, staff not required were allocated a rest day in advance of future potential busy periods (the dropdown menu on Excel was a godsend).
The spreadsheet of course was occasionally inaccurate of course but easily corrected with a quick WhattsApp message.
With hindsight parts of the approach we used could have been straight out of the scrum playbook – particularly the stand-up daily huddle. More importantly, it worked and there were no instances of desperate nursing staff trying to identify a doctor to review a patient.


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