What are the operational impacts of social distancing on the Lean shop floor?

April 21, 2020
Return to your Lean techniques to critically examine your processes for physical touchpoints.

Spring 2020 has introduced unprecedented changes to both business and societal norms. Social or physical distancing is our current reality and most likely to stay in some form in our post-COVID-19 world.

Digital technologies are being deployed to minimize touch points in our new “touchless economy” such as video/phone conferencing, e-commerce, and instant messaging. Where work-from-home is not an option, spacing markers on the floor and physical barriers between client and customer are being installed.

The shop floor is the heart of your company: “the part of a workshop or factory where production, as distinct from administrative work, is carried out.” By definition the shop floor will never have the opportunity to work from home. You comply with OSHA, not only as a requirement, but because you are that employer who provides a safe working environment valuing your team and their contribution.

You’ve used Lean and Gemba Walks to identify and improve value streams in your operations.

Now you need to examine shop floor processes that require high-touch and interpersonal interactions, from paper-based information to MRO parts and supplies. Within your ecosystem there remain opportunities to reduce contact and implement social distancing while supporting Lean manufacturing principles. Movement on the shop floor can make it difficult to stay 6 feet apart, but it is now critical to maintain distance between individuals, and eliminate potential transmission opportunities.

Many companies across industries have implemented work-from-home standards for administrative positions. Tasks such as optimizing operations and MRO inventory requirements can easily be managed remotely. This requires dynamic tools that ensure decision makers have real-time access to inventory, historical purchases, and the ability to control replenishment triggers and manage target levels in order to be responsive. Forecasting is difficult in these times, so it is more important than ever to have data visibility.

But the shop floor where your production takes place will always require human interaction. Maintenance, repair, and operations tasks generally require travelling from point-of-use to the supply room, resulting in both travel time and unavoidable interactions along the way. The opportunity to minimize travel and interaction with the supply room exists:

  • Eliminate paper – Make use of online technology as much as you are able – checklists, picklists, and requisitions. This results in no one passing paper.
  • Reduce interactions and eliminate wait-time:
    • If you have a supply room, leverage online requisitions to allow advance staging for easy pickup with minimal interaction. Have your customer's requisitioned items pre-picked and staged for pick-up and not received by hand.
    • Consider a cart delivering to point-of-use, with items pre-picked from an internal requisition. This option has the added benefit of eliminating individual travel time.
    • Consider vending solutions if you don’t already have them to support a minimal touch, self-serve environment.
  • Build in regular cleaning cycles – Technology can clearly help with social distancing, but using technology often requires physical handling of items such as kiosks, tablets, desktops. Modify existing cleaning schedules to include regular and frequent cleaning of these devices and all other high-touch areas, as well as establishing guidelines for staff on PPE and hand cleaning.
  • Read "Lean performance: For no surprises, standardize it"

Whether you are continuing operations or are preparing for a return to work, return to your Lean techniques to critically examine your processes for physical touchpoints. Reducing touch points in operations not only allows a manufacturer to implement social distancing beyond physical space adjustments, but also supports Lean processes by eliminating touchpoints and motion while ensuring value continues to flow.

About the Author: Jane Liu

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