While healthcare workers go above and beyond to keep hospitals running during these incredibly difficult circumstances, manufacturing workers are also pulling out the stops to keep essential items flowing off production lines. Many factories have faced the twin challenge of a demand surge coupled with major workforce disruption - as the prioritisation of employee health has led to unprecedented physical distancing inside factories, remote working and a record level of absenteeism.
So with the odds stacked against them, how are plant managers and factory workforces coping with this productivity squeeze? What changes have been made to operations out of necessity and which, if any, might be maintained out of choice after the crisis? Beyond the immediate imperatives of production and employee safety, does the current productivity squeeze shed any light on operating innovations and the future factory workforce?
To dig a little deeper, we were fortunate enough to carve out a 15-minute virtual coffee with Gary Wightman and Gary Manchester at P&G’s plant in Manchester. As Plant Manager, Gary Wightman is responsible for the supply of essential babycare items including Pampers across the UK, and Gary Manchester - a Senior Engineering Manager and key Zaptic user - has been working remotely from home “before it became fashionable” during COVID-19. Their combined perspectives, therefore, are particularly relevant for this current time.
Zaptic: Firstly, what measures can factories take to protect employees from the virus?
Gary W: Our number 1 priority is protecting the health & safety of our employees, always in line with and often ahead of the Government guidelines. People who can work from home have been asked to work from home. People in the plant are social distancing and wearing additional PPE. We’ve had to spread out teams and minimise contact between shifts, leaders and operators. We are now in the process of introducing thermal imaging for temperature screening across all our manufacturing sites and we continue to appreciate our employees who are coming into the plant day in, day out.
Zaptic: What kind of pressure has this placed on the operation?
Gary W: Imagine a country without nappies….our products are essential for daily life for babies and their parents/carers which is why business continuity is so important. To meet the surge in product coming from supermarkets we’ve had to ramp up capacity taking production up by 40%. This is at a time when absenteeism has peaked at 20% over the last 4 weeks. To put that in perspective, typical absenteeism is less than 1%.
During this period, our workload has also increased as we stepped up in how we’ve supported our local communities, making product donations to charities, both local e.g FareShare Greater Manchester and national, e.g. In Kind Direct to try to help the vulnerable and those most in need.
Zaptic: Wow! That level of absenteeism must have caused disruption to the normal skills and competencies available on shift. How has the site coped?
Gary M: Yes, with increased absenteeism on some shifts, there can be a less skilled workforce and less leadership than normal. However, it is important that if someone is poorly that they do stay at home and away from work until they recover so we can continue to protect the health & wellbeing of our whole workforce. But it can become difficult to ensure people follow safety and quality systems, and a shortage of experienced personnel on the shop floor may lead to increased downtime from technical or leadership issues. Increased flexibility and a “flow to the work” mentality has been required of the workforce.
Gary W: We’ve seen a huge increase in virtual collaboration to ensure smooth flow of information and priorities.The challenge we’ve faced is also an opportunity. It shows that an increase in productivity is possible with more focused priorities, good information flow and management. Stuff gets done faster and more efficiently in crisis mode, decision-making totally changes so having the right data at the right time becomes vital. The range of digital tools we have put in place, from automation to video conferencing as well as Zaptic for digital procedures, have provided a key source of data to avoid losses and communication misses when people are physically not together for long periods.
Zaptic: Gary, as a key user of Zaptic, perhaps you can talk to the use of digital standard work procedures on site?
Gary M: With Zaptic, the organisation’s training, troubleshooting, regulatory mandatory qualifications can be set up for end users to follow on company IT systems or personal tablets and smartphones. So for SOPs for example, because we already used Zaptic to create the training, verify and assign to the relevant people remotely, we’ve been able to continue tracking and managing this with no disruption. Zaptic is a very fluid system and organisation structures and assigned tasks can be changed quickly within the software to meet business needs. I am actually doing this now as organisation demands are changing even on an hourly basis!
A newer exciting project I’m currently working on is creating technical troubleshooting guides in Zaptic. I’m making good progress from home, compiling a reference library and building a process map of the P&G systems. Troubleshooting information can be accessed with just a swipe of a tablet to the point of use on a specific area and specific production line, helping to reduce downtime during the crisis and beyond to ensure strong business continuity and delivery of essential products to our consumers in the UK.
Zaptic: Thanks Gary, we’re also excited about getting the troubleshoot guides deployed as quickly as possible. The need to enable workers to competently perform new tasks without lengthy in-person training has never been greater!
Do you expect any of the changes caused by the crisis to last beyond the time frame of the pandemic?
Gary W: We will question every piece of complexity before adding non-essential meetings, tasks etc. back in. Once this is over, we should take the time together with Zaptic to review and determine where further improvement opportunities are in terms of remote work and information flows.
Gary M: I would expect social distancing will continue to be more routine and I believe there will be an increase in the number of people working from home, where it makes sense and the roles can be done as productively. I am working with multiple teams in my organisation and Zaptic helps me feel very much a part of my organisation even though I work remotely.
Zaptic: Gary M, remote work is entirely new to many people in the manufacturing workforce. As someone who was already working from home for sometime before the crisis, what are your top tips for doing so effectively?
Gary M: laughs I’m sure I can share a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Work is routine, so try to stick to a routine. Try to get up at the same time and to start and finish work at the same time. Strictly adhere to coffee and meal breaks (keep meals simple, don’t cook Michelin star cuisine for lunch). Save household tasks for after you have finished work.
Shower and get dressed for work in real clothes! Don’t stay in PJ’s all day. Create a “going to work” mindset.
Create a workspace (preferably a room you can dedicate as a home office). This can be organised with everything you need close at hand to work and minimal distractions. Do not work in the lounge or dining room while simultaneously watching TV! This helps to create an away from work environment when you’re finished.
Try to have regular contact with your work team and boss. (Relatively easy with technology today).
Move around and get some fresh air (minimum every 2 hours). Try to open windows and get as much natural daylight as possible.
Don’t dwell on the negatives… Look at the positives! Not having to battle traffic every day to get into work or drinking the disgusting coffee from the office vending machine (Although I must admit I do miss that coffee for some reason? ) Also, there must be certain people in work you are pretty glad about not seeing...
Zaptic: Maybe we should leave it there before any names creep up. Those are great tips, Gary, and I look forward to trying some of them myself!
Thank you both so much for your time and insights, which I think many people involved in manufacturing will find very relevant and helpful in the current situation. We're excited about working with you to sustain the productivity gains using Zaptic's connected worker platform !