Companies that have been built using lean principles are turning to these core ideals when confronting the unique challenges caused by today’s pandemic.
When lockdown appeared inevitable, Nicolas Chartier, the CEO of AramisAuto.com and co-author of The Lean Sensei, asked his executive committee to draw a Quality Function Deployment matrix to distinguish, in each service the company does (they sell cars), what 1) could be done 100% remotely, 2) required getting out of one’s home and 3) required face-to-face interaction.
Although AramisAuto.com is a successful Internet-based company, purchasing a car still includes some transactions, such as paperwork signatures and delivery, that require face-to-face contact. Who would want to buy a car when the whole country is in lockdown, some executives asked. Shouldn’t we just shut down the company for the duration?
The discussion led to a different question: who needs to buy a car even though the country is in lockdown? And we determined that the answer was yes. For example, office workers are working from home – but some people still need to go out there and do the job of running society: healthcare professionals, to start with and – as we’re about to discover in a rude awakening – anyone working in basic necessities supply chains, such as soap, food, toilet paper, all the items that have now disappeared from the shelves.
The executive committee is now working hard to figure out safe delivery solutions for customers who need a car in the current crisis – and for ensuring that staff are safe in doing this job.
But the QFD matrix also pointed out another aspect of the crisis. All of our confined customers are still customers. They drive cars for necessities. They were in the process of purchasing a car and have questions. They are worried or scared about unrelated topics – nothing to do with cars. They are our customers.
Likewise, our staff remain our staff – albeit at home. They need to work. They need to see that their work means something, and they need to better understand their future with the company in the current meltdown. Normal supply chain activities may have stopped, but supply chains still need to be maintained. Suppliers are freaking out. Automakers are shutting down. No one knows what will happen, but all employees need to know that AramisAuto is still here – and will be here when things turn around.
We can look to history for some guidance. From the very start, at Toyota in the early 1950s, the point of lean thinking has always been to increase operational flexibility to deal with new unexpected challenges. Toyota executives had lived through the military’s take-over of their operations during WWII and seen firsthand the enormous waste the mix of rigid command-and-control and absurd administration created in the value-creation process. Orders and counterorders, knee-jerk reactions, unrealistic solutions all ranging from SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up) to FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond Reason). (See the excellent book The Birth of Lean for more on this.)
The COVID19 pandemic is the mother of all challenges because it challenges us both practically (how do we stop the global spread of a deadly virus) and, simultaneously, emotionally: what can possibly be more terrifying than an airborne disease that can be transmitted just by standing next to a positive person who doesn’t even know yet they’ve been contaminated? So our natural human response is to retreat into absolutes first, trying to continue as if nothing had changed, and then shutting down all activities completely as many companies are now doing.
Then at some point you get out of your funk and realize, as Nicolas’ exec team has, that although operations have changed, fundamentals have not:
- The business is its customer base, and taking care of customers means being present in bad times as in good times: how do we better care for customers right now, in these impossible times?
- Employees make the company and though they be confined at home, they need to feel that the fundamental bond of trust with the firm is solid and that they are still part of a reactive engaged community: How do we keep social involvement when physical interaction needs to be avoided?
- Supply chains need to be reconfigured in novel ways. New, unexpected interactions are happening. For instance, in healthcare, there is a link between testing people (a key part of the solution) and protective masks (a supply chain failure) because the test makes people cough and the tester needs protection. In our business we look for similar connections to discover new problems to solve.
- A robust chain of help is the best way to discover new problems early: By listening to frontline people’s opinions and difficulties we can both help them out and discover early how problems are shifting and moving and where we need to secure new kinds of resources.
The core of lean thinking is to focus on understanding and agreeing on problems before jumping to solutions. In a crisis of this magnitude, it’s easy to feel “forget that, let’s jump to a solution right now!” But then as days pass, we will be seeing the terrifying consequences of early mistakes that have compounded the problem rather than saved us all.
Customers are still here, and they have new problems. Staff are still with us and they have new difficulties. Supply chains are more necessary than ever have new operational constraints. More than ever we need to build a strong sense of community and mutual trust to pull through this together.
Lean thinking companies like Nicolas’ are building on fundamentals by focusing on the new. They’re using the lean tools to ask specific questions such as:
- What new problems do our customers express we can help with?
- What new difficulties our employees experience both in having to perform on location tasks and keeping safe, and in working from home?
- How do we need to re-direct supply chains and deal with continuity interruptions risks everywhere?
- How can we use new communication tools smartly to maintain the kaizen spirit and sense of teamwork and community?
Lean thinking is more relevant than ever because it is the only management approach based on accepting challenges and figuring out new safe ways to respond, built from what customers, staff and suppliers experience in real life. This is no time for authoritarian best practices (how do we know what’s best). This is a time for figuring out smart and sensible responses with our customers and staff right here, right now.
When the panic subsides we can see the fundamentals haven’t changed – operational problems have. If we focus on the new problems one by one and keep the fundamentals in change we will pull through together – not unscathed or unchanged, but hopefully better at what we do and how we serve society.