“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
—Viktor E. Frankl
Most of time in business, getting perspective on a situation is relatively easy. You can look at standard economic indicators like jobs numbers, the stock market, manufacturing output, and consumer sentiment and get a good sense for how a quarter or year is likely to play out. Adapting to moderately shifting customer demands and economic conditions on the fly is just part of doing business.
Of course, finding solutions for what to do after the entire economy effectively comes a months-long stop is an entirely different matter. By now it’s clear that tried-and-true approaches to riding out “normal” rough patches won’t suffice. Moreover, everything from how close your people can be on the factory floor to how you manage the factory floor to travel is suddenly and dramatically different. And that makes figuring out what to do next and what you need to change in your operations among the most important and urgent questions you need to be asking right now.
I recently participated in a webinar with a group of manufacturing experts and leaders that focused on this topic. Our panel included Prasad Akella, the founder and CEO of Drishti, Ankit Dhanadia of Edwards Life Sciences, and Mike Doiron, the CTO of global operations for Flex. As you can imagine, we had a lot to discuss and we covered a lot of ground. What follows are some of the key insights and examples from our discussion.
Moving forward in a changed world
For manufacturing and supply chain distribution companies one of the biggest near-term challenges is understanding the new norms around demand. And those will mean different things for companies that continued operations throughout the pandemic versus those that stopped. Toilet paper and sanitizer producers are good quick examples of the former. While toilet paper demand skyrocketed early on during the pandemic, producers may actually see a dip in demand before things return to normal as people realize they are overstocked and don’t need to buy any for a period of time. But, as people begin returning to work and moving about the world more, producers of things like hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes are likely to see another jump in demand that will likely remain steady for some time.
Manufacturers that are just starting to ramp up operations again, on the other hand, face a series of more ambiguous and difficult questions, such as:
- How fast are our customers going to come back online?
- What states or countries are they going to be in and how might local regulations impact demand or the markets?
- How are we going to start our facilities?
- How are we going to create a safe working environment so we can bring back our people?
- What is the status of our suppliers and when will they be able to ramp up?
Here is a blog that I recently wrote earlier in the year around ongoing challenges that manufacturers will face and how to break through disruptions successfully.
Edwards Life Sciences provides a more nuanced example of the challenges that some manufacturers are facing. Ankit Dhanadia talked about how demand for the medical devices it produces dropped dramatically because hospitals reduced surgeries to focus on Covid-19 patients. Moving forward, as hospitals quickly ramp up surgeries again, Edwards needs to be ready to meet demands. That involves protecting its workforce at multiple sites across the globe while coordinating with suppliers and customers.
Given the complexity of the situation, organizations that can work quickly and flexibly will be better able to find wins and mitigate impacts on the company. Sales and operations planning is a good example. In the near term, monthly planning likely won’t be enough. To maximize potential returns from markets that are open or opening, you will need to keep a close eye on things and continually re-target efforts toward the best opportunities.
The big challenge is enabling more flexible operations in the near term as well as the longer term. That will take a mix of new ways of thinking and the right technology and data to navigate in a more volatile world.
Identify “packages of work” in the supply chain to mitigate and manage risk
Recently, the manufacturing press has featured a lot of discussions around putting more inventory in place to address demand volatility. Well that’s great if you’re sitting on a lot of cash. But for most manufacturing organizations it’s simply not an option. What’s needed is a way to create more flexibility and speed without having to add a lot of inventory (and the associated risks).
I think the way forward is to consider how you can reorient the supply chain around the concept of packages of work. In other words, breaking out key tasks such as machining, sub assembly and assembly and reconsidering whether those things need to be tightly integrated or if they should be distributed across the supply chain in different geographies with different suppliers to help minimize risk. Packages of work can help your organization become more agile and flexible in the wake of natural disasters or geopolitical issues, and better answer questions like:
- How do I gain efficiencies and operate effectively across the supply chain?
- How do I improve traceability of material and product across the supply chain?
Ankit Dhanadia mentioned that Edwards Life Sciences has been moving in this direction. He noted that they have moved away from the traditional supply chain where they have all of their eggs in one basket to more of an end-to-end digital supply chain mindset that makes the company more flexible in responding to the unexpected.
It’s time to explore new ways of training your people, from the front office to assembly line operators
Training is another area that will become more and more critical in navigating through the coming months and potentially years. Part of the challenge will be ensuring staff has the flexibility to reset quickly based on changes to the product mixes that are needed in different states and countries. But another big challenge will be providing the necessary training to maintain or grow staffing levels as people deal with schools being closed or ongoing health issues or concerns. That’s why it’s important to start thinking about different scenarios about what you can do to train everyone from associates that work on the line or the floor to maintenance personnel to office workers. Fortunately, with today’s technology it’s possible to provide remote training or social distanced training where people don’t have to be watching something or interacting close together. For example, a good option could be a combination of video training combined with a solution like Drishti’s video analytics to ensure people are meeting work standards before you put them on the line.
According to Mike Doiron, Flex trains some employees on key machines remotely by using virtual reality (VR) headsets that render digital twins of the machines. He said that the headsets not only simulate the operation of the machine, but they can actually put trainees inside the machine to see the robotic motion. In some cases, Flex has pretrained operators using the VR tool before they even got to their machine. That’s a pretty sophisticated new training option, but it’s one of many fast-evolving possibilities. Flex is even looking at tools like Drishti’s video analytics for supporting virtual Gemba walks. He noted that the advantage of a virtual Gemba walk is that it makes it easy to pull in people who’ve dealt with particular problems from far-flung locations to get their valuable perspectives on problems.
Use technology and data to better navigate the chaos and stay flexible going forward
While rethinking the supply chain and training options are important, you can never really maximize business flexibility without visibility into what’s happening across the business and supply chain on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. An analytics solution that can provide decision makers with timely insights into customer trends, operations and your supply chain is essential. There are affordable digital manufacturing technology options out there and analytics is a good place to start to establish the best plan forward for your manufacturing or distribution business.
Dploy Solutions, as an example, makes it easy to pull together your existing data together and view and analyze it through job-specific dashboards in support of smarter, more-informed decisions. With the help of Dploy Solutions, it’s not only easy to explore relationships between changing business variables, but you can identify root causes of performance problems and take quick corrective actions that improve daily performance. If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to retool how you manage from sales and operations planning to the supply chain, give us a call.
Listen to the “Is there a ‘Zoom’ for the assembly line?” on-demand webinar for a deeper dive into the concepts of technology based training and packages of work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Koenemann, VP of Supply Chain and Technology at TBM Consulting Group, is a 25+ year veteran of manufacturing, operational excellence and supply chain optimization. At TBM, Ken is actively leading the effort to our suite of services to include emerging technologies that improve productivity and convert complex data into information for improved decision making.