How To Get Lean After COVID-19

The below article endeavors to provide both warehouse team leads and site managers with an up-to-the-minute look at the current state of supply chain operations following the COVID-19 pandemic. As restrictions are gradually eased and associates begin returning to work, warehouse managers and 3PL supervisors will not only have to ensure a safe return to work but, more importantly, determine what kind of impact the first half of 2020 will have on their organizations. Thus, the article argues for and ultimately concludes that there is no better time than the present in which to embark on cultural change, or:  to go from COVID-19 to Lean.

Back To Business as Usual?

Returning to work has never been so fraught, nor for so many, as it is right now following the gradual easing of restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while fear, uncertainty, and doubt continue to pervade every decision in every industry the world over, none are as wholly affected by a sudden renewed outbreak (or worse) than warehouse operations. During this pandemic, we realized even more that no matter how much automation is used – the human employee will always be a scarce resource.

Maintaining your workforce as your top resource, and ensuring health and safety through the peak season will be of paramount importance.

Should this be achieved and reflected by warehouse throughput returning to a steady state, well, is it too much for the warehouse manager or operations manager to ask, what now?

Answer?  Absolutely not, especially given that supply chains and logistics-based value streams are often the first indicators of an approaching economic shock, (another) unforeseen crisis, or, and less catastrophically, a shift in consumer demand.

Being able to act upon any of these events and turn them into an opportunity for growth, however, means warehouse and operations managers need to move beyond ‘business as usual’ in the present post-COVID world by standardizing procedures and creating a lean culture. Continuously looking to improve processes within a warehouse not only ensures the survival of 3PLs but also boosts their ability to take on some of the world’s most pressing issues while also padding the bottom line in a more holistic manner.

Here’s how:

Plan the Return

Now, not to get too ahead of the post-Pandemic calls for warehouse associates to return to distribution centers around the globe, it is important to reflect on where the workforce is at mentally, physically, socially, and psychologically. Seeking feedback from employees, then, is critical before planning to roll out a return initiative. Not only will this allow logistics leaders to improve the current state of how they assess and attempt to offset risk, but also signal to employees that executives remain genuinely concerned about their personnel.

Quickly, consider putting together a special tiger team or task force to ask employees how the organization performed within each of the following areas:

  • Communication:  was information pertaining to the business passed along in a timely manner?  What could be done better next time?
  • Training and onboarding:  what should be included for all new personnel or transfers?
  • Appreciation:  did you feel as though leadership and management took your concerns seriously?  Do you currently feel appreciated and safe?
  • Warehouse hygiene:  what else could we do to improve step-by-step instructions on how to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19, or similar, infections?
  • Procedures and protocols:  what more could HR and operations do to prevent the introduction of contaminated products or people (here, read:  external visitors)?

This Voice-Over-Custer (VOC) assessment (since employees are customers) will certainly speed the transition for those returning to the DC, but also make onboarding new personnel during turbulent times a far better experience for trainers and trainees.

Do Get Back To ‘Business as Usual’, but Then…

Returning for a moment to the question posed by the warehouse manager of ‘what next?’, then, means doing the heavy lifting (no pun intended) of actually planning a workforce return initiative. Seasoned operations managers know that this is no small task, but that it also offers up the unique opportunity to slowly, or ‘softly’, introduce the Lean philosophy as well as make use of some Six Sigma tactics, tools, techniques, and procedures (see above VOC).

A few more specific ‘19 to Lean’ top tips are as follows:

  • Leverage technology: make use of automated steps where possible, but also look to see whether the overall process is performing optimally
  • Go digital: take this opportunity to take the training online where and when it makes sense;
    Note: a critical best practice is to maintain the training structure and have new hires transition through each learning phase (e.g., apprentice, journeyman, craftsman, et al.)
  • Recommit to safety: partner with associates on a daily basis by taking Gemba walks to see what they see and how to improve upon it

By considering each of these potential areas during a phased employee-centric return to the warehouse, warehouse managers, floor managers, and back-office gurus will be better positioned to simultaneously introduce a change-ready culture since COVID-19 is not likely to be the last crisis that upsets the oft entrenched mentality of ‘business as usual’ and ‘that’s just the way we do things ‘round here’.

Check for Opportunities

Change is hard, which is why it so often leads to organizations imploding in on themselves or becoming obsolete (think Kodak, as well as others, here).

Regardless of whether the ‘business as usual’ culture has come under attack from COVID-19 or simply the introduction of new competitors, employees are likely to feel threatened and, so, grow overly focused on keeping their job by any means necessary.

Overcoming these barriers, then, needs to be a consideration when welcoming the workforce back following the last few months. Here’s where to start:

  • Partnering:  warehouse associates, as well as back-of-house personnel, need to be asked by leadership what they believe to be the business problem so that there is equal buy-in from all parties
  • Creating a goal:  create a shared vision of what success looks like by, say, 2021 and ensure all warehouse personnel feel they have been heard when developing this future state
  • Pull, don’t push:  warehouse managers need to guide the vision and offer suggestions while avoiding directives that create resistance to change
  • Celebrate: when a better way of doing business is discovered, documented, and codified in an SOP, warehouse manager and business partners need to take time to praise the effort and, in so doing, incentive the entire organization to join in
  • Check and reflect:  not all processes need to be improved, nor all at once, which is why it is important to create a program or project that tracks as well as monitors any backward progress

Act…the Time Is Now!

Of course, warehouse managers and site leads are going to initially feel overwhelmed by the prospect of not only trying to plan for a safe return to work for employees on the heels of COVID-19 but also the added stress and pressure of ‘making up; all the lost profit from Q1 and Q2. Add to this the daily struggles of operations managers and there is no wonder that continuous process improvement initiatives get pushed to the side indefinitely. To be clear, there are times when it is appropriate to let off the push toward building a more resilient corporate culture, especially when health and safety are at issue, but there is no time like the present to have back-office, front-of-house, executives, associates, and leads at all levels come together as one to look toward the next big threat or opportunity.