Advice during COVID19 for Internal Lean Resources

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-07-20

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve had numerous conversations with internal lean resources with all sorts of titles, struggling with how to support lean during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Some are shut down, others are on work from home restrictions. Some companies are at full tilt, supporting the crisis in one way or another, and others are very slow. So the real answer is, “it depends,” but here I’ve broken down my guidance for lean resources.


    1.  Have empathy. This isn’t just a humanity statement, nor a lecture, but empathy makes lean more effective anyway. You’re likely to stay employed, so engaging lean methods now isn’t about saving your job, it’s about helping. Just make sure that the spirit of help comes through loud and clear. People need help from all sorts of angles, and if the help is genuine, it’s more likely to be received as intended.
    2. Experiment. What works has changed, so that means we must change, and our processes must change. Everything I share below is ONLY meant as a starting point, and you must experiment to make it work for you.
    3. Know what type of problems people are facing, and help them solve what’s relevant. Here I’ll break down what I consider four different types of “new” problems people are facing, and how to best help in those situations.

The “critical” resources: These are healthcare professionals, first responders, as well as those manufacturing ventilators, masks, and the least talked about critical resource, testing (both the tests and the analysis). These are processes where keeping workers safe is the first priority, otherwise, the system doesn’t work. While you might be on a stay-at-home order, you might be given permission (if you choose to engage) to observe work, find problems, and help develop and implement solutions. Where are there high touch areas that can be eliminated? How can we increase production of ventilators? However, in the past, you might have acted more as a guide or facilitator or coach, but no one has time for that right now. You have to be the engineer. You have to observe the problem, validate the cause, determine and implement solutions on your own. If you can help stop the spread of the virus in high-risk areas or increase the capacity of critical resources, you will be saving lives.

The “more work” resources: There are many organizations, from for-profit to governmental, that are busier today. These range from SBA issuing loans to the local grocery store trying to support increased demand. One way or another, these resources need help, and that help will relieve critical resources. How you help might depend on your own restrictions, and personal willingness. But you must keep in mind, for them, any improvement that doesn’t benefit me for another couple months is useless. They need help now. Ideally, focus on micro-kaizen (more appropriately just called kaizen, but most orgs focus more on big stuff than the small), or small improvements that help in any way, whether it’s staggering shift start times or helping establish some standardization for new resources. If you can, go to the point of activity. If you can’t, at least help spread the improvements. For example, if you work for an organization with 100 stores (or anything), talk with the managers, find out what improvements they are making, and rapidly spread them across the network.

The “harder work because of ambiguity” resources: There are many people whose work is just confusing, unclear, or ambiguous because either they don’t know which of their suppliers will shut down next, or they don’t know if their market is going down by 2% or 20%. For these people, help them change their processes, or create new ones, that help manage or mitigate the uncertainty. This could be anything from developing a decision model so as information does come it, we’re more responsive and consistent in how we react to it (this is important in a volatile environment because if we overreact to both up and down swings, which is common, we can massively exacerbate the problem; systems dynamics people will understand this point). If you don’t know which risk factor will rear its head next, then focus on building contingency plans and improve the flow of communication. There are improvements that we can implement that make dealing with ambiguity easier.

The “harder work because of work from home” resources: Many people are doing the same work, just from home. Both at a personal productivity level, and a collaboration level, this has made things harder, less productive, and less effective. You may have helped a team build a huddle practice years ago, for example, and then stepped back as they took over. Now might be a great time to step back in, help them establish new routines and practices for their virtual huddles, and act as a facilitator. Spread best practices. Help establish new social contracts. Offer to facilitate larger meetings that require some planning and facilitation.

The “suddenly not that busy” resources: There might be more of these than you think because they aren’t the squeaky wheel. And many are appreciative of the breathing room. First, I would ask if they could help either of the first two groups if that’s possible. It’s certainly happening in medicine, where less-busy orthopedic surgeons who aren’t allowed to operate are helping those ICU and ER doctors who are overwhelmed. If that’s not the case, what they can invest that time into?  Improvement and learning are two great categories. Are there projects that they’ve always wanted to get to? New processes to establish. Or are there learning opportunities? Sure, we can’t deliver in-person training, but give them a book or video training or coaching.

4. Adjust your own methodologies, especially depending on your perspective on the timing of getting back to normal. I’m not going to predict how long it will take to get back to normal, but we know it won’t be in the next 2 weeks. How can you adjust your work? Do you make smaller, more frequent check-ins with the teams you support? Do you shift to more online training (see my offer here)? Do you shift to be more directive, or more coaching? Don’t just try to keep going, understand how to shift and practice your own Plan Do Check Act improvement cycles. Direct observation is an example of this that must shift, so here are some examples of how you do direct observation when you work from home:

•Have someone set up a video camera of the process you need to observe. We used to do this years ago for long changeovers or downtime events, where you might want to capture a process over an 18 hour period, and then we’d go through it looking for key points. Not ideal, but better than guessing.

•Andon-like video: Let’s say your engineers are working from home, but the lab techs and production resources are continuing to supply the nation (or world) with essential products. When co-located and there’s a problem, you can go to the point of activity. But when at home, set up a video-andon. Whoever is at the point of activity can video-chat with the engineer and show them what they see. You need to establish the protocols and get clean and responsive processes and expectations in place for this to work. Many fields that have “field” staff and “office” experts have utilized this method for years.

•Surrogate observation: Have someone who is at the point of activity perform the direct observation. You might have to coach them (that’s a good thing) and trust them (that’s also a good thing) to do what you would prefer to do yourself, but you can still get the job done and you might have built organizational strength while you’re at it.

5. Plan more. Things will get back to normal. Get ahead of that time period. Start developing your plans, your infrastructure, your capabilities. Plan as if you were launching something new next week. Don’t just sketch it out; get it ready, so that when the organization is ready, you can wow them with excellent delivery of service and value.

Hopefully, these ideas give you a perspective on how to continue in your work as a lean coach, consultant, engineer, or facilitator. We wish you the best, be safe and healthy!

Jamie Flinchbaugh