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Monday, July 12, 2021

The Importance of Lean in a Post-Pandemic World

Since March 2020, every person on the planet has had their life shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way. Every aspect of life has been impacted. Our everyday routines were brought to a stop, and any sense of normalcy was lost.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on supply chains. The spectacle of empty supermarket shelves during the early part of the pandemic served as a stark reminder of what can happen when inventory and service levels are out of sync.

It seems like every time there is an inventory problem, lean manufacturing or lean principles get the blame. Lean has gotten a bad rap during this pandemic. Let’s face it, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a pretty rare occurrence! If anything, crises like this one illuminate the continued lack of understanding of what Lean is. This is unfortunate.

Even though Lean has become foundational to supply chain management, it is still subject to misinterpretation. A common misconception is that this management philosophy is essentially about taking people out of business operations. While this can be an outcome, it is far from the primary purpose of Lean.

In essence, Lean maximizes value to the customer by eliminating waste from processes. Another interpretation is that the model strives to meet customer needs with as much precision — and hence as little inventory — as possible.

Excess inventory is a form of business waste that ties up capital and consumes organizational resources that are better deployed elsewhere. Over recent decades, companies have made considerable strides in reducing inventory volumes while maintaining high service levels.

However, COVID-19 delivered a shock to the system that gave companies pause about their ability to unerringly fulfill customer demand during surges when product stockpiles had been cut to the bone. The crisis has sparked much discussion about the need to revisit approaches to inventory management.

While these last 15 months have not been what most companies had hoped or planned for, it provided manufacturers with an opportunity to utilize lean manufacturing to address the shortages and problems caused by the pandemic. COVID-19 has drastically shifted the regularity of demand—with forecasts changing daily, sudden influxes of work, and order cancellations—which has emphasized the need for manufacturers to be flexible. Lean manufacturing encompasses many different aspects, and the pandemic has given manufacturers who embrace Lean an opportunity to analyze weaknesses and address them head-on.

This pandemic showed manufacturers perhaps more than ever before that Lean manufacturing is about being flexible. Flexibility in your machine capabilities, capacity to adjust production schedules, availability for quick changeover of techniques, and cross-training of employees will all help ensure your ability to be responsive and adapt when it becomes necessary to do so. A highly-responsive manufacturing operation will in turn allow you to create an agile customer service platform that will stand out to both your current and prospective customers.

Disruptive, stressful experiences (like COVID-19) are often opportunities for growth. Research has shown that crises can change the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra that pervades many organizations, creating new opportunities for people to voice their ideas on how to do things better.

There are two main mindsets that shape our lives (impacting not only our attitudes but learning as well) especially true in a challenging situation: fixed and growth.

• A fixed mindset – Learning is a waste of effort – even if it was useful there is no time or nothing to learn that would help right now; learning is impossible – even if there was, learning is too hard and asking too much; the only way to succeed is to play your cards right, always look smart, never look dumb.

• A growth mindset – Learning is useful – what we learn will make things better; learning is possible; we can learn what we don’t currently know; setbacks are learning experiences and obstacles will be overcome.

Adopting a growth mindset isn’t only important at an individual level. It is also vital for businesses at an organizational level. A growth mindset leads consistently to better results.

Practicing Lean Thinking means reinforcing our belief in better outcomes where achieving apparently impossible things we learn by doing. As we make things better we unlock solutions to problems that were never apparent first off (although they seem obvious in hindsight). It’s precisely when things feel hopeless that warm hearts and cool minds make a difference – and Lean Thinking is most relevant.

In varying ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every single business across the globe. It’s ample time for all manufacturers to reevaluate their strategies and make improvements. Companies that already suffered from low productivity, waste, and inefficiency before the pandemic will likely continue to struggle the most. More than anything, COVID-19 has shown how important it is to practice innovation and resilience. To ensure long-term survival, many businesses are focusing on their productivity and performance, reducing errors, and utilizing available resources as much as possible.

Even during times of crisis, efficiency is important. To survive, many businesses are pivoting the way they offer their products and services to adapt. Using Lean manufacturing techniques, you can identify what your customers need the most right now and consider new ways to efficiently match those needs. Whether your business is reopening or your employees continue to telework, the pandemic requires us all to innovate and adapt.

It is clear that Lean Manufacturing is more essential now than at any other time, giving companies a system for navigating a global landscape that has been forever altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Utilizing Lean can help businesses iterate, solve problems and adapt to keep up with the unprecedented pace of change. Use Lean to ensure long-term success.

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