“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”- Margaret Mead
Fellow Lean business practitioners, as the recent Coronavirus outbreak is showing us, there is a tremendous gap between the current situation and the preparedness state that we would like to be at.
Many business owners are scavenging the internet, looking for an answer to how to run a viable business during these harsh times. It’s precisely at times like this that Lean business practices can reach it's biggest potential by helping businesses and all types of organizations maximize value, improve processes, and reduce waste.
In this first week of March 2020, we don’t know if this will last just a few more weeks or months. The good news is that no matter which month (or year) you are reading this, it only means you survived!
Unfortunately, this Covid-19 episode cannot be taken lightly, but each of us probably saw ourselves in a new situation, either purchasing hand sanitizer to last until 2045 or filling the garage with toilet paper.
My mentor and friend Darril Wilburn recently asked me: what kind of deficiencies have you already identified during this pandemic?
That question was interesting since there won’t be too many times in our lives where we can experience a phenomenon like a pandemic. Or so we hope.
How about you, did you see problems in your healthcare provider? Or in your communication channels? In your community engagement? In your local stores? Or everything worked so well that it seemed like we were all ready and waiting for the virus to arrive?
What have we learned this time around that we can apply and get ready for the big one?
Will we be much better in preventing it? Or at least in preventing the spread of it?
How about treating and curing? In what will we be better the next time around?
Judging by the number of previous epidemics, we should be a quasi-expert in dealing with them. However, it feels that we have not learned enough, and people are still tending to panic rather than following their clear checklist for flu pandemics. Maybe those who learned are now gone, and the lessons are lost.
While we impatiently wait for a solution (remember this was written in early March 2020, there is no sign of what the future will be), we are worried and rushing to stock our pantries and building our quarantine bunkers.
We pray that competent professionals somewhere around the world will find a breakthrough vaccine, medicine, or other solution.
However, the Lean community has an added capability, perfect for times like this. And for extreme times, this capability must be embraced as a responsibility, a duty. The Lean community has the responsibility to step forward and offer their abilities to those in need.
Skills such as understanding systems and processes, eliminating non-value adding activities, streamline and create flow, standardize and multiply best practices, and that is just the beginning.
We must act and make it happen.
Not too many other communities as a class of people are so close to thinking Problem-Solving at its root cause, as the Lean community is. We were trained to think systematically how a problem can be prevented, and if it can’t, how it can be solved. This means we have tremendous potential to help streamline processes such as the ones within the supply chain of medical equipment.
And it doesn’t matter if the process is in production (like where they make ventilators) or in bureaucratic ones (like where they approve medicine or test kits).
I wish we all live long enough to see the next calamity, the big one. When that happens, we will tackle that with the mastery reserved only to those who deployed and learned from this current pandemic.
I hope we will be able to teach the newcomers what we did and how they can also help when the next one hits.
For now, what are some of the places Lean business practitioners could be instrumental?
To help companies increase throughput and production capacity?
To help hospitals create the flow in the triage of patients to be tested and/or admitted and then discharged?
To improve the utilization of resources: Hospitals, beds, ventilators, etc. Are they all being utilized at 100% as they claim?
Teaching error-proofing techniques, so there are no infected patients being discharged by mistake or being given a false negative.To kaizen, speed up lines and reduce crowds in public places.
Teaching root cause analysis, standardized work, yokoten (lateral deployment), and so many concepts that will help us slow down the outbreak.
The chain of organizations that can benefit from Lean is long and is suffering from lack of production capacity (from test kits to respirators), discharging and admission glitches (infected patients dismissed too soon), lengthy approval processes, and deficient triage (at exam labs or at hospitals).
While we see this massive need for more and instant capacity, at the same time, we see an army of well-equipped and well-trained Lean business practitioners who are eager to use their abilities to help their communities. And a minor detail: they have never been so available as they are now.
We rarely see such a perfect match between supply and demand. The only thing is that supply can’t seem to find where the demand is and vice versa.
Seasoned Lean specialists are amazing at what they can see and do, but they sometimes do not know where the needs are. Remember, this is an unprecedented scenario where most of us never had a sensei for. The reality is that great talent, great eagerness, and great availability, is not being able to find where the great needs are.
Many times, we just feel powerless as Lean thinkers who are grounded in our home offices, how can we possibly help this distant world that is the medical field? It just seems impossible to make a remote contribution. But as people say, it always seems impossible until it’s done.
Where else can we help?
There has been a record number of media postings and news about social distance, sanitization, quarantines, etc. As recent as a month ago, there were still new guidelines being released by the authorities on good practices to prevent the spread of the virus.
Perhaps in an equal amount, there is plenty of media coverage and statistics about those people that have already been infected and are under medical care. A Pareto chart would probably show 80% of the news is covering those two extremes of the pandemic, the healthy and the sick. Those extremes concentrate a heavy dose of medical, government, regulatory, and specific technical elements.
The other 20% of the time would be diluted among several different aspects that happen almost invisibly between those two extremes, and many of them are surprisingly accessible to our Lean community.
A recent example can include a group of seamstresses that got together to sew liners for the scarce N95 masks. This way, masks could be reused while only the liners were disposed of. There has been no scarcity of liners reported so far.
Lean thinkers, I think we may feel powerless for being away from our typical agenda, but we are much like that group of volunteering seamstresses who were kept from their normal manufacturing routine. Each of us, in our own capacities, can and must find a way to be a reverse agent and help U-turn the pandemic trend.
It would be pathetic to see such massive devastation taking its course and then disappearing for a while without being bombarded with Kaizens from the Lean army. It will be a sad day when those who can make a difference, will not.
Maybe we cannot sew serviceable liners, as well as seamstresses can. But what can we do instead?
The beauty of the lean expertise is that it can be applied to anywhere there is a process. We don’t need to know the science of viruses, have medical degrees, or know how to sow liners. But we were trained to see inefficiencies, problems, and opportunities.
The seamstresses have their best intentions, but we may find a world of processes where they are struggling, maybe lots of waste that are keeping them from reaching optimum throughput.
In this same case, how many of the following can a lean practitioner do?
And the list is as long as our lean expertise allows it to be.
By the way, isn’t this list like what Sakichi Toyoda had back in the late 1800’s? He used lots of common sense mixed with the courage to act and improved a small hand loom operation inside a barn. Today his company became Toyota Motors.
Nothing is impossible. How about you?
Do you have ideas on how to support locally?
About the author
Sammy Obara learned and implemented the Toyota Production System (TPS) at Toyota facilities in Japan, Brazil, Venezuela, and in the United States. He has taught Lean to a multitude of consulting firms, educational organizations such as Harvard and Stanford.
With close to 30 years of Lean experience, he has helped more than 350 companies. These include TPS projects in environments ranging from schools to hospitals, to military and many others, and in a variety of countries, including China, Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Austria, the U.K., and the U.S.