From the corner office to the shop floor, 2020 has been an exceptionally tough, black-swan-event year, and we’re only halfway through it. The sheer amount of disruption, both good and bad, has turned our kitchen tables into 8-to-5 desks and conference rooms, and many parents into teachers overnight. With summer in full swing, and college students adjusted to their remote internships, the new normal is starting to feel more like “business as usual.”
As we reflect on the year so far, there are some key lessons learned and tips to navigate future crises.
1. Embracing digitalization
The pressure to become a digitally focused company has surpassed critical mass as a significant amount of the workforce shifted to working from home in recent months. With the frequency of disruptive events on the rise, we can no longer have the mentality of if a disruption may occur, but rather when. To address these shifts head on, companies will need to embrace plugging the digitalization wave into most, if not all, of their business systems. Most importantly, it is more than just collecting data, but rather, shifting entire systems and processes to digitally enable work to continue regardless of working location. From a manufacturing standpoint, adopters of systems that enable the integration into digital manufacturing services will reap benefits such as increased speed to market, automated quoting systems, on-demand production, consistent quality when using a single supplier with in-house production capabilities, and more.
2. Building a disruption response plan
This is similar to business continuity planning but with an added mindset of determining what change in business or social norm would have the largest impact on the business. Business continuity has long focused on fires and natural disasters, or financial troubles, but few have a page on a global supply chain freeze. In recent months, however, the top-down push for COVID-19 responses and policies have moved through the supply chain requiring companies to have a plan. This introduces a great opportunity to develop teams and general responses to events happening around the world to ensure a rapid response. In the future, responses will need to be hours, not weeks, as time is critical in ensuring the safety and health of employees, as well as the outlook of the company.
3. Scenario planning
In the early 1970’s, Shell starting asking challenging questions like “what if,” to understand how different world events and disruption would influence the future. This all started long before IoT and AI were in the picture; however, over time the data has allowed them to ask larger questions and play out more scenarios. This culture of asking the difficult questions will be key in preparing companies for potential disruptions and global crisis that await us on the horizon. Leaders will not only have to ask what might derail their company, but what skills does the company have that can be easily pivoted as new opportunities come into view. For example, a plastic packaging company shifting to produce face shields, or a commercial airline using standard routes to move medical supplies, showcase how applying already developed skills in a different way. At Protolabs, throughout this pandemic, we’ve seen this firsthand, working with companies like tire manufacturer Michelin to make face shields, aircraft manufacturer Beta Technologies to produce ventilator components, and many more; to date we’ve produced roughly 8 million custom parts for our customers as we work to fight COVID-19 together.
4. Building an extended onshore network of suppliers
The shift to reshore many of the long and complex supply chains has opened the opportunity for future growth in the manufacturing industry. However, failure to recognize the fundamental issues and challenges without investing in the long term can lead to a short-term boost, only to revert back to sending work to low cost countries and long supply chains. Finding and developing regional partners reduces the risk of longer complex logistics that are more susceptible to global shifts and gives the needed agility for rapid changes.
5. Putting it into practice – Hackathon
The general idea of a hackathon is to attack a problem head-on in a short period of time, and they are a common practice in technology-driven companies—but they can offer value to any organization. What is often overlooked and undervalued is the methodology in which hackathons instill certain behaviors and practices on a company culture. Establishing clear roles, responsibilities, and guidelines for a hackathon ensures that everyone knows what the others are responsible for and thus allows them to focus all their effort on the problem. This same approach should be applied to internal teams and supply chains, putting different scenarios into play. Understanding the “why” behind the actions allows for organizations to increase the depth of learning while even potentially coming up with a new disruptive approach.
6. Investing in your employees
A profound shift has occurred this year as company doors have closed, revenue streams have dried up overnight, and supply chains have been uprooted, but the inspirational stories that have emerged that highlight how people have risen to the challenge is truly amazing. As we continue to understand what the aftermath of notably the most disruptive year in recent history, companies must take a moment to thank employees for their resilience in a time of great uncertainty. As leaders, now is a great opportunity to reflect internally, understand any skills gap and invest in digital training opportunities to ensure your team is ready to rise once again to the next challenge.
What Will the Future Hold?
A black swan event of this magnitude is not something many could predict, let alone prepare for. However, events like this are a reset button for entire industries to rethink and retool "business as usual." Many people are still left collecting unemployment and wondering what tomorrow looks like, but as industry leaders it is our responsibility to lean forward in taking the valuable lessons to better prepare ourselves for the next crisis. Companies that embrace digitalization to provide agile supply chain solutions are better prepared for any potential crisis as they retool and reinvest in employees to take on the challenges we face together.
With a decade of experience in the medical device industry, Chris Stevens is a senior R&D engineer at Protolabs, where he focuses on developing and implementing innovative digital manufacturing processes to support the needs of the company’s plastic injection molding customers, predominantly focusing on the medical industry. Prior to Protolabs, Stevens worked in varying roles at some of the leading medical device companies in the world. He holds an MBA from the University of Minnesota, and a B.S. in Plastics Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.