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Why the Lean Community Is Uniquely Positioned to Fight the Pandemic - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“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 community practitioners, as the recent Coronavirus outbreak is showing us, there is a tremendous gap between the current situation and the state of preparedness we would like to be in. During the first week of March 2020, we didn’t know if this would last just a few more weeks or months. The good news is that no matter which month—or year—you are reading this, it means you survived!

Unfortunately, we cannot take this COVID-19 episode lightly and each of us is finding ourselves in new situations—cancelling flights, staying indoors, purchasing hand sanitizer to last until 2045 or filling the garage with toilet paper.

My friend and mentor Darril Wilburn recently asked me, “What kind of deficiencies have you already identified during this pandemic?”

That’s an interesting question since there won’t be many times in our lives where we’ll experience a phenomenon like this. Or so we hope.

What Are You Seeing?

How about you? Have you seen problems with your healthcare provider? Or in your communication channels? In your community engagement? In your local stores? Or has everything worked so well that it seemed like we were completely ready and waiting for the virus to arrive?

What have we learned this time around that we can apply and get ready for the next one or the “big” one? Will we be better in preventing it? Or at least in preventing the spread of it? How about in treating and curing the virus? In what way will we be better the next time around?

Judging by the number of previous epidemics, we should be quasi-experts in dealing with them. However, it feels like 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 in the past are now gone and the lessons are lost.

While we impatiently wait for a solution, there is no sign of what the future will bring, and we are worried. We are rushing to stock our pantries and build our quarantine bunkers.

We pray that competent professionals somewhere around the world will find a breakthrough vaccine, medicine or other solution.

The Duty of the Lean Community

However, the Lean community has an added capability that is perfect for times like these. During extreme times, we have to embrace this capability as a responsibility, a duty. The Lean community has an obligation to step forward and offer their abilities to those in need. Abilities such as understanding systems and processes, eliminating non-value-adding activities, streamlining and creating flow, standardizing and multiplying best practices. And that is just the beginning.

We must act now and make it happen.

Not many other communities, as a class of people, are as synonymous with problem-solving thinking as the Lean community. We are focused on digging to root cause. We were trained to think systematically about how to prevent problems and, if we can’t prevent them, how to solve them.

We are focused on digging to root cause. We were trained to think systematically about how to prevent problems and, if we can’t prevent them, how to solve them.

This means we have tremendous potential to help streamline processes such as the ones within the supply chain of medical supplies. It doesn’t matter if the process is in production—where they make ventilators, or in bureaucratic ones—where they approve medicine or test kits. We’ve been trained to help.

I hope we all live long enough to see the next calamity, the big one. When that happens, we will tackle it with the mastery achieved by those who deployed and learned from this current pandemic.

I hope we will be able to teach the newcomers what we learned—what worked and what didn’t—and how they can help when the next one hits. For now, there are endless ways for Lean practitioners to be instrumental.

Ways We Can Help

  • Help companies increase throughput and production capacity
  • Help hospitals create flow in the triage of patients as they tested, admitted, and discharged
  • Help increase the utilization of resources: Hospitals, beds, ventilators, etc. Ensure they are all being utilized 100%
  • Teach error-proofing techniques so there are no infected patients being discharged by mistake, or being given false negatives
  • Run Kaizens (Rapid Improvement Events) to speed up lines and reduce crowds in public places
  • Teach root cause analysis, standardized work, yokoten (lateral deployment) and other concepts that will help us slow down the outbreak

Matching Supply With Demand

The chain of organizations that can benefit from Lean is long and they are suffering from a 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).

We see this massive need for additional and instant capacity and at the same time, we know there is an army of well-equipped and well-trained Lean practitioners. They are eager to use their abilities to help their communities, and—a not so 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 problem? The supply can’t seem to find and meet the demand and vice versa.

Seasoned Lean specialists are amazing at what they can see and do, but they sometimes don’t know where the needs are. Remember, this is an unprecedented scenario and most of us have never had a Sensei for what we’re experiencing right now. The reality is that we’ve got great talent, great eagerness and great availability, but we’re struggling to find where the great needs are.

Often we feel powerless. We are great Lean thinkers who are grounded in our home offices. How can we possibly help this distant world that is the medical field? It seems impossible to make a distant contribution. But as people say, it always seems impossible until it’s done.

Where else can we help?

Applying the 80/20 Rule to the Pandemic

There have been a record number of media postings and news about social distancing, sanitization, quarantines, etc. There are still new guidelines being released by the authorities on good practices to prevent the spread of the virus. Perhaps in equal amounts, there is plenty of media coverage and statistics about those people who 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, governmental, regulatory and technical elements.

The other 20% is diluted among several other aspects taking place almost invisibly between those two extremes, and many of them are surprisingly accessible to our Lean community.

A recent example includes a group of seamstresses who got together to sew liners for the scarce N95 masks. This allowed the masks to be reused while only disposing of the liners. There has been no scarcity of liners reported so far.

Lean thinkers, we may feel powerless while being away from our typical genba, but we are much like that group of volunteering seamstresses who were unable to execute 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 a huge disappointment to see such massive devastation taking place and then going dormant for a while if the Lean army doesn’t rise up and bombard the scene with Kaizens. It will be a sad day if those who can make a difference, will not.

We might not be able to sew serviceable liners as well as those seamstresses. But what can we do instead?

The beauty of the Lean expertise is that it can be applied to any process. We don’t need to know the science of viruses, have medical degrees or know how to sew liners to be able to help. We were trained to see inefficiencies, problems and opportunities.

The beauty of the Lean expertise is that it can be applied to any process.

The seamstresses have the best intentions, but we may find process areas where they are struggling. There may be lots of waste keeping them from reaching optimum throughput. They’re doing a great job, but could we help them do better? What could a Lean practitioner do?

Lean Applied to the Production of N95 Liners

  • Help them set up thread changeovers faster
  • Reduce downtime from machine breakdown, or thread breakdown
  • Standardize the work so more people can learn and help
  • Share the standards so other sites can quickly copy with the same quality
  • Balance the operations so there is maximum productivity with existing resources
  • Optimize the process so throughput meets the demand at the right time
  • Create milk-run distribution internally and to the point of use
  • Apply just-in-time replenishment for fabric and thread
  • Conduct total productive and predictive maintenance

The list is as long as our Lean expertise allows it to be.

By the way, isn’t this list similar to Sakichi Toyoda’s back in the late 1800’s? He used lots of common sense mixed with courage to improve a small hand loom operation inside a barn. His company became Toyota Motor Corporation. Nothing is impossible.

How about you? Do you have ideas on how to support locally? We’d love to hear from you!

Sammy Obara

Through Honsha, Sammy has taught Lean to a multitude of consulting firms, educational institutions and over 450 organizations around the world, including in humanitarian missions thru Asia and Africa. With over 35 years of lean experience, Sammy learned and implemented the Toyota Production System (TPS) at Toyota facilities in Japan, Brazil, Venezuela and in the United States. He is a faculty member with San Diego State University and Lean Enterprise Institute and the co-author of the book Toyota by Toyota.

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