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What do I do when key logistics employees are afraid to come to work?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

What do I do when key logistics employees are afraid to come to work?

Well, governments are telling everyone to stay at home – why shouldn’t they? Humans are excellent at dealing with known problems, but not so good at handling uncertainty and new problems.

For instance, when you look into accidents, you can usually spot the cascade. Last time I had a scary near-accident driving, the kids started fighting in the back as I was driving on the fast lane. I started telling them off and so slowing down when the car behind me got really close. Just as I moved to the slow lane, the guy decided to angrily pass me on the right – and we almost had a high-speed crash.

Our society is highly integrated and depends on key people keeping up key activities. The question now is how do we make critical activities safe(r)? This comes down to the question of how do we secure the supply of protective equipment?The last accident I looked into on the Gemba was typical. On a construction site, a project manager was carrying a large sample of building material to show the architect how it looked on-site while talking on the phone when someone called him urgently, and he turned around just as he was stepping on the stairs – badly sprained ankle.

One threat, you deal with it. A second threat and you’re close to being overwhelmed. A third threat appears, and then you lose all common sense and either stick with a bad plan or do something completely counterintuitive and silly. Luckily, we’re rarely in such situations as things mostly work well, and we deal with one threat or slip-up at a time, resulting in nothing worse than endless frustration.

With COVID-19, every employee is facing five huge uncertainties:

  1. Am I contaminated? There’s been so much talk about this virus being asymptomatic, no one knows for sure whether they have it or not, and wonder about it every time they cough.
  2. Am I contagious? Same issue, we’re told we can be contagious long before illness symptoms appear. So are we?
  3. Am I likely to catch it if I come across someone who is positive? This disease is airborne and the virus resists outside the body longer than usual viruses, so contagion is a real risk – but what risk?
  4. Governments and companies tell me to stay at home – I have important work to do but will I be blamed if I show up? Social fear is very real, particularly in times of high anxiety as now.
  5. How will I feed my family if I don’t work? By now we are deluged with reports of people being laid-off and facing a very uncertain future.

Novel Virus, Novel Thinking

“Social distancing” is the completely wrong frame to explain what needs to be done to slow the spread of the infection. To break the chain of transmission we need physical distancing, not social distancing. Society absolutely needs to continue to perform, with people keeping a safe physical distance from each other and controlling contacts with hand washing, sanitizing and masks.

Governments are imposing lockdown in response to supply chain failures:

  • No tests available: no way to reduce uncertainty on who is touched and who is not
  • Not enough temperature testing: no way to screen people at the entrance of buildings
  • No masks available: no way to stop wondering about the air you breathe when you pass someone on the street
  • No sanitizing gel available: no way to control casual contact, such as touching a train pole grip
  • Not enough respirators in hospitals: no way to reallocate hospital beds to respiratory failure

If we frame it this way, we’re back in lean territory: just-in-time. If we put aside the horror of the catastrophe we’re facing, the question you’re asking is critical. Our society is highly integrated and depends on key people keeping up key activities. The question now is how do we make critical activities safe(r)? This comes down to the question of how do we secure the supply of protective equipment?

We’re all in very different conditions and circumstances – but companies can do stuff. They have means at their disposal. We can reframe the problem around: how to keep critical employees safe, and how to convince them that they are safe? This is, in fact, a problem that we often solve, albeit not in such overwhelming circumstances.

In normal times, lean practice is dedicated to solving these problems. The pandemic poses new obstacles to lean techniques:

  • Virtual obeya: How do we create a virtual coordination center with people not physically in the same room? Thankfully, many new internet tools help with this – but, still, we need to learn to use them for this purpose.
  • Chain of help: How does the chain of help function if we can’t reach people physically – the logistics of helping someone have become far more complex, so how do we prepare for this and what can we do?
  • Supply chain flexibility: How do we reconfigure supply chain to procure or make protective equipment in a global shortage.

One healthcare provider I know, for instance, uses a WhatsApp thread for people to locate potential sources of masks. Another is busy making cloth masks – less than ideal, but better than naught.

A Start

Global, social media-fueled panic has swept the world. The tragedy of losing a close one or being ill oneself is beyond words, the fear is very real. I have no real answer to give you other than try to parse out the three core elements of the response:

  1. Emotional response: Fear is real. People’s fears about going to work have to be taken at face value. If they are critically needed, they will need reassurance.
  2. Problem response: How to secure enough protective equipment to let people work safely and test kits so that people know where they’re at in terms of self-confinement.
  3. Managerial paralysis: Authoritative managers don’t sound less authoritative because they’re panicking – they express contradictory, changing directives with just as much aplomb – which is worse than doing nothing. Yes, it’s scary and it’s a panic, but sooner or later we’re going to have to face the concrete problems – so why not now?

Summer is coming to the Western hemisphere, and with it, the hope the virus will recede. Things will look up. In the meantime, you are asking the right question, and we need to face the issue. I realize any theoretical answers we have come up short of the real difficulties you must be experiencing – hopefully, it’s a place to start thinking about it.

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