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Safety First for Business Continuity

Shaun McDonough headshot and title

What the Pandemic Has Taught Us

When the pandemic first started in the U.S., there was a lot of talk at FLEXcon about how we should respond. How could we keep our employees safe yet remain productively in business and support the essential industries that use our products? We turned to our core values and the answer was clear – it wasn’t one or the other. Keeping our employees safe would enable us to remain operational. It would also ensure that our people could continue to pay their bills and put food on the table. Time for action. This is where the lean methodology we’ve been adopting over the past two years has proved invaluable.

Collage of FLEXcon employees wearing masks
Step 1. Assemble crisis response teams within the company to survey the big picture and develop strategies around three key areas:

Risk Containment - mitigate the risk of virus spread and ensure we are prepared. The employees are the company, and we have a duty to safeguard their well-being at work. We needed to mitigate not only their risk of contracting the virus, but also their fears associated with coming to work and being around each other. We also needed to plan for the various scenarios that might come into play, such as suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 among our employee population. Finally, we knew that to be successful, 100% participation was a must, and all employees were tasked with keeping themselves and their team members safe and well, from each team member to the CEO.

Business Continuity - keep the business running‚Äč. Activities for this team centered around ensuring adequate raw materials and essential technologies so that the business could continue to run smoothly. Focus was also placed on product development so that we could pivot to producing a different range of products if the market demanded it. The team worked very closely with our suppliers to ensure we had the raw materials needed to support rapidly changing needs. They kept a pulse on trends happening in the medical industry, in particular. Knowing that personal protective equipment (PPE) was already in short supply, they put a focused effort on helping area medical facilities and emergency services acquire the PPE they needed, and quickly developed disposable face shields and fit test hoods at the request of local hospitals. To date, FLEXcon has donated over 20,000 face shields to over 300 organizations across the country, as well as numerous test hoods because, well, it takes a village.

Communications - be transparent and informative. There was a lot of uneasiness at first, especially among employees who would continue to work on-site, so we knew that transparency about everything that was happening was essential to employees feeling comfortable being here. This included communications about everything FLEXcon was doing related to the pandemic, including decisions being made, new safety protocols, notifications around suspected cases of the virus, and much more. Daily written update communications were established, educational fliers focused on prevention were distributed, and an internal campaign was launched to highlight how the work of FLEXcon employees was supporting the fight against the virus.

Step 2. Take preventive action to minimize the chance of contraction and transmission of the virus.

Sending our office employees home to work remotely was an easy decision, thanks to cloud storage and video conferencing software. However, many needed support with setting up their home offices and getting connected. They were encouraged to create ergonomically sound work spaces at home and allowed to return to campus to obtain needed equipment, such as external monitors, office chairs and stand-up desks. Our IT Support Team did an amazing job of preparing everyone from a technical standpoint (read the story here). There was a software learning curve for some, and the way those folks stepped up was impressive. All are now well-versed and can conduct business from virtually anywhere. Dispelled is the myth that employees are less productive working from home.

For our lab and production employees, work must be completed on-site where the equipment is. This is where guidance from the CDC and WHO was critical, and where our lean training enabled us to problem-solve in a very mindful way for a focused implementation. Cross-functional teams that included individual team members, supervisors and executives were formed. Using all the tools in our lean toolbox, they enlisted the subject matter experts in each area to gain insight and included employees in trials of the processes they were developing around cleaning, physical distancing, and contact tracing. This is where we discovered the agility afforded by lean methodologies, enabling us to quickly pivot to address changing needs and concerns.

The teams started with the basics – daily temperature checks, mask wearing, frequent hand washing. Cleaning protocols were developed around regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces and cleaning of equipment between shifts. Inter-plant travel was limited, and travel to other FLEXcon sites was prohibited, as were visits from customers and vendors, excepting essential services. A process was established for returning to work after an absence to minimize the risk to fellow employees after travel outside the area. Emergency time off was established for those impacted by the virus and encourages employees to stay home even if they are unsure whether they have the virus. It also supports employees who must quarantine, have childcare issues due to COVID, or may need to care for a family member who is ill with the virus. This is a new mindset for production employees at FLEXcon. In a 24/7 operation, keeping machines running is critical to meeting demand, so taking time off with little notice had been rare. New processes are now in place that allow us to compensate better when an employee must miss work, and we see this new mindset continuing into the future, even after the threat of COVID-19 passes.

Organized utensils - before and afterThis was only the beginning. Individual employees were, and continue to be, empowered to take action on smaller but impactful items that are within their control - things as simple as propping internal doors open to eliminate touch points. Stocking of our vending machines was suspended to minimize non-employees coming on-site. Although some vendor service has since resumed, this meant making coffee by the pot, with multiple employees handling containers of sugar and creamer and touching stirrers. Someone had the idea to obtain individually wrapped packets that contain the sugar, cream and stirrer, just like in hotels. Similarly, eating utensils that were formerly stored in large open containers are now being purchased in packets that contain utensils, salt, pepper, and a napkin. Many more examples exist of FLEXcon employees coming up with creative ways to help keep each other safe.

Step 3. Standardization.

Once the new processes were clarified, the ability to follow them had to be facilitated for all. This meant training – our first dojo. A training space was created where each employee could learn the processes and apply them in their specific workspace. Virtual training modules were also created to facilitate consistency of leadership members across the company in how issues such as possible exposure were, and continue to be, handled. The training allowed for standardization of processes across the board, which in turn enabled the team to identify any gaps and then make improvements to address them. This has helped tremendously with traceability across the organization because we have a method for knowing with certainty what has been done and what hasn’t. Every person is responsible for following the required actions to mitigate any potential risk. If a process is not performed in accordance with the standard, the supervisor can investigate to determine the root cause in the process and take steps to close the gap. Moving forward as businesses begin to reopen across the country, we’ll be creating standardized processes associated with travel to customers and return to the office.

Step 4. Continuous improvement.

One thing to understand about lean methodology is that you’re never done. Even the most effective and efficient process can be improved. Our new processes are in place, and we will continue checking and adjusting as new gaps become apparent and as employees get ideas for how to further improve. They’re constantly raising the bar – standardizing and improving.

Leadership Involvement

Strong leadership support has been essential during this time of danger, fear, and sometimes panic. FLEXcon’s executive team is steadfast in its commitment to seeing our employees through this crisis. We believe this will come through all of us caring for each other and remaining vigilant. We’ve also learned how critical it is for employees to have confidence in any process. Including them in the development of the standards is essential. It also allows leadership to see just how driven and resourceful their employees can be when given the opportunity. The ingenuity and sense of purpose shown by FLEXcon’s employees during the pandemic has been nothing short of amazing, and we look forward to them transferring these traits into other processes within our operations.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that staying true to core values isn’t for the faint of heart. Times like these are where you really find out what you’re made of, and the FLEXcon family did not disappoint. At this point, we’re fully entrenched in our new normal. Of course, it will continue to evolve as needs change and our extraordinarily creative team members keep thinking up new ways to improve.

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