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I am fortunate to be working for a company that is making essential products during these challenging times. This is a privilege that I know is sadly not the case for many whose jobs have been affected by the economic impact of COVID-19. But for those of us who continue to work in the field of continuous improvement, we are faced with a new and changing environment. How do we further our continue improvement efforts when many of our organizations are focused primarily on surviving the current economic downturn? Can we adapt to these conditions and find ways to add direct value and help overcome these challenges?

I strongly believe the answer is affirmative. Continuous improvement is about solving and preventing problems, and problems are certainly not in short supply right now. There is tremendous opportunity to apply our knowledge and skills in helping our organizations respond to these unprecedented conditions.

My team and I have been learning over the past few weeks how to adapt our approach to continuous improvement. We have had to adjust our priorities to align with the acute needs of our business, needs that require nearly daily reevaluation and response. This is a work in process as we continue to learn and evolve in our understanding of how we can best meet the needs around us. The following have served as helpful principles.

Frame the situation. ‘Framing’ means to consciously and deliberately define our external circumstances instead of letting them define us. It’s important to ‘right-size’ the problem and neither minimize nor overstate it. COVID-19 is a crisis with widespread, long-term consequences. However, it is not the metaphorical end of the world. We will prevail and come out the other side – but we do not have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for the cloud to pass. Our actions during this time will help determine how effective our organizations will be in adapting and recovering form this challenge. Now is the time for all hands on deck.

The message we should propagate during this time should be one of resilience and responsibility. These are tough times that will serve as a test of our mettle as leaders and as people. Although uncertainty abounds, one thing is absolute: We have responsibility for is within our control. Our eyes should be calibrated and be constantly scanning to look for the opportunities to contribute in this crisis.  The ability to engage people in solving and preventing problems is critical during this time – let’s leverage the our  toolkit of continuous improvement to help solve the challenges we currently face.

Determine how to add direct value. I believe that service lies at the heart of continuous improvement. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we identify the critical needs of our organizations and customers and double-down on our efforts to add value.

Our top priorities are protecting the health and safety of our employees followed by reducing costs to ensure the long-term sustainability of our business. I have told my team that our strategy will flex as we learn how we can use our skills and expertise to directly support this mission-critical work. And we need to offer specific ways to support that go beyond just a general offer of assistance. This requires vigilance in looking for these opportunities based on the ‘voice of the customer’. 

The opportunities to contribute have been plentiful. Examples include streamlining the process for for ordering hygienic supplies for our plants, maintaining the action register for the daily divisional operations huddle call, and assisting with creating standard work and training for new sanitary procedures. Due to limitations on group meetings, we are providing training on how to use a virtual virtual collaboration software for team problem-solving.  In addition, we have also been providing regular coaching to on-site continuous improvement leads in how to adapt their approach under the current circumstances and continue to make progress.

What is most important is that we actively seek to align our work directly with what our business needs the most. Now more than ever is not the time to promote an agenda, but to rather to align our efforts with where the needs are most critical.

Engage in strategic preparation. What activities could you engage in now that will help prepare your organization for the future? Now is the time to take advantage of any time to work ‘on’ the system.  My team developed a pipeline of activities to draw from that are focused on long-term benefit. These tasks have included restructuring our intranet site to enable employees to more easily access the tools and templates they need for C/I projects, developing over a dozen standard financial savings calculators, and improving the flow and content of training materials. Every week we review and refresh our list to maintain a healthy pipeline of activities. The work we are doing now will will strategically position us to better support our organization when we return to more ‘normal’ working conditions.

Focus on the ‘future state’. One of the aspects of continuous improvement that has always resonated with me is its optimism – the idea that there is always a ‘future state’, a condition better than our current one. We can leverage this philosophy and be voices of encouragement rising above the negativity that is so prevalent. Winston Churchill was able to inspire a war-torn England during World War II by setting a vision for them of when they would look back on how they responded to the crisis and call it their ‘finest hour’.

We are faced with very real adversity right now, but there will be a day when this is largely behind us. This future state is being formed by the choices and actions we are making now. COVID-19 has created a very challenging set of circumstances for all of us, but I do believe that within every crisis lies opportunity. Ours is to demonstrate how the principles and tools of continuous improvement can help us overcome these real challenges and help prepare us for a better future.

Leave a comment and share how you have had to adapt your approach to continuous improvement due to the conditions caused by COVID-19