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Social Distancing 2

A To-Do List for Restarting—and Rethinking—Plants Post COVID-19

June 10, 2020
2020 presents a golden opportunity to come out of our cocoons and try an approach that is dramatically different in order to adequately navigate uncertain times.

It is now evident that post COVID-19 lockdown, manufacturing plants will have restrictions on manpower density per square foot to adhere to the social distancing norms laid out by local and state authorities.

Some manufacturing sites may be operating with 30‒50% less workforce than usual.

While some global strategic consulting experts have already begun offering high-level suggestions on how industrials can operate in a post COVID-19 world, more hands-on advice is available, offering a realistic to-do list to run plants to their fullest potential under the conditions of less-available manpower.

However, being realistic does not mean avoiding the unique opportunity to challenge presuppositions on how plants are operated into the future. In the long run, 2020 presents a golden opportunity to come out of our cocoons and try an approach that is dramatically different in order to adequately navigate uncertain times. 

Safety & Health of Workers/Employees

Most of the world’s leading organizations in operational excellence have always looked at safety, quality and productivity in that order, and we expect all others to follow suit. There is already much innovation ongoing with new sensors and apps to track people and maintain records for compliance. The following are suggestions for plant safety.

Non-intrusive detection: There are ways to automatically and non-intrusively detect anomalies in worker health and report to authorities. No one likes to be monitored continuously, and especially any repeated invasive testing will not be appreciated with open arms. I feel that most of the testing can be done at the plant entry points where the attendance system can be integrated with the test results at the gate and have limited testing or monitoring in production areas, unless and until it is very critical to do so.

Zoning constraints: Considering the small probability of false negatives and infected associates unknowingly entering plants, tracking their history and touch points is critical. The industry is already seeing a lot of innovation in this space, too, with apps that monitor and maintain the complete genealogy of a day in life of workers and management staff. But senior management should avoid the honey trap of using this traceability data for fulfilling their hidden long-standing wish of policing workers.

Poka-yoke to build physical self-isolation: Physical layout changes can enable mistake-proofing and prohibit entry and exits in certain zones of the plant to prevent violations of physical-distancing norms in first place.

Direct Manpower Planning

Rework on building blocks: There is a solid opportunity to re-evaluate the fundamental building blocks of a plant such as work study, facility layouts, line balancing and rewards and recognition mechanisms.

MUDA reduction: Identify value-added from non-value-added activity(MUDA) and explore if non-value-added can be almost eliminated by process and layout improvements, as well as low cost automation. Perform detailed planning so that physical execution can start as early as possible after lockdown. Keep in mind that automation for the sake of automation will not help in the long run.

Re-balancing of lines: Rebalance the lines for the expected TAC(K)T levels (TAC(K)T time. The rebalance may be higher in the first few days (progressive opening) and is likely to gradually move towards the earlier norm or the line speed. Also, considering the cyclic nature of virus infection, it may also be a good time to move away from classic line-balancing with a fixed pitch and manpower loading and explore more innovative approaches such as self-balanced lines.

Dynamic SOPs: Standard Operating Procedures and work instructions need to be more dynamic post COVID-19 and explore tools to dynamically update and display SOPs on the lines, as per the new line balancing.

Multi-skilling: Don’t expect that temporary workers will be back in action in the short term. The permanent workforce will have to be ready to perform their core activities and also additional activities such as material handling, loading, unloading and housekeeping, which would have been perceived as low skill before COVID-19. HR/IR/Production team and worker representatives will have to work hard to change this perception of work and will need detailed training plans to execute.

Shift timings: There is a likelihood of a staggered shift being planned to manage the overall manpower density at plant level. Be aware of local, state and federal guidelines, and make sure that best possible contact time is guaranteed as part of the revised agreement with associates.

Engagement-based measurement: This is also an opportune time to move from norms-based production culture to an engagement-based way of measuring productivity and associated gain sharing. We need to come out of the mindset that direct manpower is a cheap and abundant resource. The limited number of people allowed on the plant floor will be our crown jewels (they have always been, some will realize it more today) and it is imperative that they are empowered to make the operational decisions and improve response times to issues on floor. The most engaged associate may be rewarded with a higher pie of the gain share, to keep his motivation high.

Supervisory and Management Planning (independent of location, time and role)

Move away from “labeling”: There’s a need to challenge current organizational ratios as workmen to supervisor and supervisor to managers and think laterally to come up innovative solutions. We should use this opportunity to do away with labeling on the floor (operator, supervisor, technician, etc.). More labeling on the floor is likely to result in lesser engagement times. It is time to bridge the divides and merge roles.

Remote management: This will also be a great opportunity for supervisors and management to go digital and manage their operations remotely and limit physical meeting until restrictions apply.


Digitization of manual tasks: Make a list of all manual tasks performed by direct and indirect associates – such as quality control form entry, TPM checklists, production records on the floor today. Next, perform pareto analysis and identify all such tasks that can be automated, to reduce workload and manpower requirements.

Smart manufacturing – sense, alert, assure: This is an opportunity to sense and collect data directly from assets, alert management on anomalies and run statistical analysis of data to take actionable insights.

PowerPoint to platform-based MIS: Make an assessment to identify the NVA in management tasks and the way whole MIS reporting is done. It may be the right time to do away with “Power Point culture” and accept a new normal of real-time data driven operations review and MIS reporting.

Amol Mate is vice president for the Industrial Systems Business, Altizon Systems.

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