The Post-Pandemic Production Floor

The Post-Pandemic Production Floor
September 25, 2020 Andreas Eschbach

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming the way businesses operate faster and more profoundly than possibly any other event in the history of the world.  For instance, in 2019, if we were to tell business leaders that the bulk of their white-collar workforce would be working from home for an extended period of time, the echo of the laughter and scoffing in derision would still be heard in the conference rooms today.

Decisions and plans that would normally have taken months of deliberations were made in moments.  What didn’t work, or didn’t work well enough, were refined and deployed in real-time.  Indeed, if we ponder how quickly businesses responded when faced with certain doom, it makes one wonder why this velocity isn’t the norm; why it takes the prospect of doom to accelerate innovation and transformation.

Although we are not through the pandemic yet – and there is considerable debate and uncertainty whether there will ever be an end or whether we will just learn to live with the risks like every other risk in life – plans and protocols are being drawn-up and deployed for the post-pandemic world.  And, in particular, how manufacturers will operate their production floors in a world where a new and invisible threat exists.

For your consideration and to help you establish COVID protocols, the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Department of Labor (DoL) has published a document entitled “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” and the European Union Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has published their “COVID-19: Guidance for the Workplace”.  Both documents should be considered “works in process” as much is unknown about COVID-19 and should be revisited frequently for updates.

But even within these documents, and because much is still unknown, specifics on how to best protect employees is largely left to companies to determine.  Therefore, whatever plans and protocols a company might develop, it needs to expect, even anticipate, potential challenges and model the alternative approaches in advance to support rapid, fact-based, actions.

A few of the obvious protocols that must be established are; the wearing of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves; the increased awareness of personal hygiene such as frequently and thoroughly washing hands and covering yourself when you sneeze or cough; and a conscious effort to maintain social distancing.

The challenge on the production floor will be the reconciliation of the conflicts that abound between doing the job and following the protocols established.  For instance, how can it be ensured that social distancing restrictions are maintained during meetings, daily production activity, and shift handovers?

Many of these challenges can be met through process re-engineering and optimization with COVID-19 protocols in mind, and digitalization of the activity reporting as it occurs. 

But to successfully accomplish this, we have to pay close attention to the risks associated with misunderstanding or misinterpreting what is being captured and communicated and mitigate these risks.  And we also must consider the security challenges associated with working remotely.

Some practical protocols can be readily established, and many (most) companies have already established these protocols such as;

  • Review and re-engineer standard operating procedures; All operations must be re-examined to ensure they adhere to new safety protocols.  What operations can be updated to require less people to perform?  Of those operations that require more than one person, what changes can be introduced to maintain a safe distance from one another?
  • Solicit worker involvement; You will likely find that the solutions to these challenges will be found coming from the workforce themselves.  This will help build workforce confidence in the changes by establishing effective, two-way communication that respond to both the employees’ and business concerns through flexible adaptation.
  • Establishing workplace physical distancing; Other than instructing workers to be mindful of their proximity to others, companies are implementing a variety of visual aids such as markings on the floor and signage.
  • Working in smaller groups; Sometimes completing a task will require more than one person, even after a process has been re-engineered, to minimize the number of people required.  While this is unavoidable in the absolute sense, it can be minimized.
  • Working remotely; In many cases, supervisory and managerial tasks can be completed remotely.  This might not mean working from home, but it does mean that the tasks might be accomplished at a place at the plant or elsewhere that is isolated from others.
  • Virtual Shift Handovers; An activity that has historically required close contact with a group of people has been shift handovers.  This is the moment during the workday when one shift communicates the efforts and goings-on of the outgoing shift to the incoming shift.

But how can all of this be accomplished?  And how can it all be accomplished under the circumstance and conditions that exist during the COVID-19 pandemic and in preparation for a post-COVID-19 world?

The crux of the challenge is; how do we maintain the cohesiveness and effectiveness of working teams when they can’t work together as they had in the past?

Whether originating from the human workforce or the Internet of Things (IoT); the capture and communication of, and collaboration on, information will require a comprehensive digitalization strategy.  And at the heart of this strategy for the production floor will be digitalization solutions, including a robust shift handover solution, that collect and disseminate this information from the shift in real-time; ensuring that those who have or originate the information make it available to those who need access to the information.

This will change the way information is collected and recorded.  No longer will there be page-based paper versions of information.  Instead, information will be collected and stored digitally using a records-based approach where only one version of the truth can exist.  This will enforce the completeness and accuracy of the information which will simultaneously increase information reliability, operational effectiveness, and accountability.

That all information – machine activity, operator notes, and so on – are being collected in real-time and in one system will facilitate the shift handovers and enable them to be accomplished without violating social distancing protocols.  The outgoing shift and incoming shift can collaborate telephonically; each seeing the information as shared from one source.

And since all information is being harvested as it occurs, the entire operational history will exist in one place making on-demand documentation as easy as a click of a button.  This “single point of truth” will be the natural result of implementing a software solution like Shiftconnector.

Of course, in these times of social distancing and restricted travel, any digitalization solution will need to be implemented remotely.  This will involve workshops and consultations using telephony to configure the system to support the operating environment, operators, and other stakeholders – and to ensure every operator and manager is properly trained in its use.

The benefits of the successful digitalization of the production floor in support of shift activity are plentiful and can be very dramatic. 

First and foremost, you will have created a safer environment for your most valued assets; your employees.  After all, this is how the entire thing started – the threat to employees from COVID.

But beyond that, your plant will operate more efficiently because your employees will spend less time fighting in search of information and more time producing.  And your plant will also operate more effectively because your employees will have real-time access to what is going on in the plant and be able to engage changes in circumstances as they occur.

Although there are many benefits which are important to the operation of your plant when responding to a crisis in manufacturing, three of the more obvious and immediate benefits of implementing a software solution like Shiftconnector would be;

  • Production team’s agility: To keep the availability of your shift teams, you need to reduce the shift-to-shift contamination.
  • Remote team and plant management: Enable plant managers and process engineers to work remotely and to successfully perform their duties effectively and efficiently.
  • Extraordinary actions and contingency plans: Be prepared to downsize your production team and handle additional critical actions as they occur.

The actions which you take today are vital for the resolution, even avoidance, of a crisis and will also be beneficial for the readiness of your business and operations over time.  Realizing these three opportunities alone will help you achieve “business resiliency” and result in your plants operating with greater agility.

Life as we knew it has changed forever.  Regardless of what the future holds, we can safely say we will never completely go back to the way it was.   But this is an opportunity to examine the very essence of how our businesses operate and to put in place a new way of working that will actually be better; better for our business, better for our customers, and, most important, better for our most valuable asset – our employees. 

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