Lean Culture During COVID: Lessons Learned


March 1, 2022
By Darren Dolcemascolo

One of our long time clients asked if I would write about the challenges of practicing Lean during the COVID crisis.  Since we are two years into this (and hopefully nearing the end), I thought now would be the perfect time to discuss the challenges organizations have faced over the past two years and the lessons learned.  In this article we will discuss three key challenges COVID presented to the Lean organization and what we have learned about overcoming these challenges.

Challenge 1:  Going to the Gemba.  Lean thinking stresses the idea that going to where the work happens is critical to success.  Organizations shouldn't be managed by the numbers only.  Dashboards/metrics tell part of the story, but it is important for Lean Leaders to "go and see" what is going on to grasp the situation.  During the pandemic, there were some limitations on this, particularly because of social distancing and working from home policies.   We have learned that we can still adhere to this principle through the use of technology whenever we are unable to do it the normal way.  When problem solving/making improvements to processes, it is important to see the process and understand the problem deeply, but this can be done easily today by using video footage of a process and talking through the process remotely with those performing the process.  Video can also be used for timing processes and creating standard work documentation.   This process still adheres to the principle of going where the work happens without necessarily physically being there.  (Some people of course need to be there physically to perform the work in the case of manufacturing operations or logistics operations, but in some cases, the gemba itself involves computer work.)

Challenge 2: Training and Improvement Activities.  Traditional approaches to lean have always involved gathering together to learn and practice lean principles and tools.  For example, activities such as value stream mapping workshops, kaizen events, and training of various types require gathering of people in close proximity.  At EMS Consulting Group, we have discovered that using remote collaboration tools can be extremely effective for learning and practicing lean.  We still have clients that are choosing remote training and activities because they can be equally effective and more cost effective.  We recommend the following best practices for remote training and workshop activities:

  1. Utilize 2-hour sessions with a 5 minute break after 1 hour.  This helps keep the participants engaged and avoids Zoom fatigue.
  2. Invest in a brainstorming collaboration tool such as Miro.  We use Miro for lots of activities from developing value stream maps using virtual stickies to strategy deployment to problem solving.
  3. Use virtual break out rooms to have small teams practice methods with the help of a facilitator that can roam between rooms providing support.
  4. Take advantage of the time between 2-hour sessions to have the participants gather any necessary data to support the activities.  The advantage of not doing consecutive days of training/workshops is that time between sessions can be used wisely.

Challenge 3: Just in Time and Inventory Reduction.  Has COVID negated the need to pursue Just In Time? We have been beaten over the head with the idea that Just in Time is a failure and that current supply chain shortages as a result of COVID prove it.  This is nonsense.  Just in Time is not zero inventory.  It applies to everything- not just external supply.  When the idea of Just in Time was introduced to the United States, it immediately became an approach characterized by companies bullying suppliers into holding all of their inventory while holding very little on their own balance sheets.  This is not what Just In Time is about. Just in Time is a principle to work toward: provide your next downstream customer with what they need, when they need it, and in the quantity that they need.  This principle makes sense in any environment and at each point in a process.  Inventory is a waste.  It covers up problems, and the new supply chain issues from the pandemic are new problems.  However, lean is not about reducing inventory- it is about solving problems.  Reducing inventory is a benefit of solving these problems.  These problems can be equipment downtown, long setup times, quality issues, suppliers that are too far away, suppliers that are not truly partners, etc.  We still need to work toward just in time through kaizen / problem solving.

The pandemic has actually caused us to change some of our approaches to teaching and practicing lean, and I believe many of these new approaches will outlive the pandemic and allow us to learn and practice lean more efficiently in the long term.

Click here to subscribe to our free e-newsletter Learning to Lean and receive up to three articles like this one each month.