Coronavirus’s Impact, Learnings, and the Value of Discipline

Prior to the pandemic, manufacturers spent most of their time optimizing assets and processes. When the crisis struck, the industry was forced to reinvent day-to-day activities. Refocusing on people is the key to being prepared for future uncertain times.

During the past year, the global coronavirus pandemic put pressure on daily manufacturing operations like never before. As these pressures emerged and mounted, members of FSO Institute’s Manufacturing Health Roundtable—representing nearly 30 consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs)—dealt with them in real time and collaborated to identify six of the most significant COVID-19 trends as shown below.

As these six COVID trends show, when disruptions of this magnitude occur and uncertainty rules the day, it is easy to lose sight of standard work, process discipline, and the value of predictable day-to-day operations in manufacturing. Maintaining focus and business as usual becomes increasingly difficult. And while most agree that we won’t be returning to normal as we have known it, they also agree that there will be a continual need for discipline and repeatability in manufacturing in the new normal world as well. 

Case in point: Finding certainty in uncertain times

To learn more about how the CPG community is dealing with the turbulence inflicted by the global pandemic, FSO Institute spoke with Amber Brovak of Church & Dwight and Bernard Cubizolles of GE Digital about some of the lessons learned during the past year of uncertainty.  

Amber Brovak of Church & DwightAmber Brovak of Church & Dwight

Bernard Cubizolles of GE DigitalBernard Cubizolles of GE Digital

FSO Institute: Amber, as senior manager of global safety operations at Church & Dwight, how has your area been impacted by the global pandemic during the past year?

Amber Brovak: Since most of my experiences with the impact of the global pandemic occurred during my time with my previous employer (Nestlé), my comments are based on that experience.

It is appropriate that “safety first” is listed as the No. 1 trend, as there was a 100% commitment to employee health and safety at Nestlé during this pandemic. In fact, we considered employee health and safety as the gateway to production—without it, there would be a risk of no production. As our leadership team broke into smaller teams leading the COVID process, we immediately began putting safety protocols into place—from social distancing and physical separations to hand sanitizing and PPE (personal protection equipment). That really opened employees’ eyes and showed our focus on and caring about their safety and well-being. We had a small group that spent a large part of each day proactively handling PPE and chemical procurement, including thermometers for each plant. It was difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, but we had to do it. Initially, the primary focus was at site level, and corporate developed formal procedures quickly and established processes at site level. It was a great partnership!

While communication is always important, with all the uncertainty and misinformation surrounding the pandemic, the need for daily communication grew exponentially. We knew that creating a calm, reassuring environment was critical to our success. Fortunately, we had site-level emergency systems in place for other emergency situations that we were able to use to communicate with all employees. Eventually, we were able to formalize these protocols and communicate (via website) to all employees. Small teams led the way and used visual messaging and push notifications to communicate across the site. Like most companies experiencing a shift to virtual interaction, we leveraged Microsoft Teams and Zoom for communicating with employees both remotely and on-site.

To address day-to-day operations issues, we had small teams that spent hours developing protocols to ensure a safe working environment, with social distancing, PPE, and physical guards/shields that focused on all employee areas (break rooms, restrooms, control rooms, conference rooms, etc.). When we encountered our first potentially positive case, we proactively shut down for two days to ensure the right steps and procedures were in place for our employees to stay safe while working. We immediately held leadership meetings to discuss all the required next steps and communication. We communicated to employees in a way that showed them we took their health and safety seriously, and we would not put their health and safety at risk. Leadership also scheduled regular walks around the site to talk with employees and hear and address their concerns. To ensure we had constant backup in the event of an exposure to our leadership, we split our salaried employees into two groups on alternating days, to cover business continuity.

When it comes to supply chain impacts, like everyone else, we experienced huge interruptions, so we could not produce products fast enough. But perhaps more significant than supply chain interruptions was the tremendous increase in consumer demand that resulted from more people staying at home, stocking up on things, and relying more on e-commerce.

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FSO Institute: What about lessons learned with an eye toward applying these lessons for improved operational performance going forward?

Brovak: I think the greatest lesson we learned was just how agile, resilient, and innovative leadership at site level could be when under pressure. When leadership was challenged, they pulled through. With CDC guidance, they made procedures and aligned their efforts in the direction of keeping all employees healthy and safe. Corporate played a huge role as well. To help communicate, we had daily calls with corporate and ensured that all sites helped reinforce the right steps to take and delivered the most up-to-date information and updates on each site.

Another thing we learned was how you see a different side of employees when things like COVID happen. We saw people speaking up more and getting more interested in solving the problems we faced. If we discovered that employees were uncomfortable with the procedures we put in place, we acted on that to address concerns. Again, communication with employees was the key. You’ve heard that saying that “prosperity conceals genius while adversity reveals it.”  Well, we saw employees stepping up in a time of uncertainty and crisis. We hope to build on that experience.

We also learned that when it comes to our day-to-day operating systems and processes, the majority of the time, the systems remained in place, and they worked. Meetings were held virtually or with social distancing, physical separation, and masks. We relied heavily on virtual technology, especially for those not at the sites who continued to work remotely. The one item that was impacted the most was new projects or initiatives. They were essentially stopped for a couple of weeks or months, as most of our resources were directed at COVID-related issues, and visitors were not allowed on-site.

I think a final, big lesson we learned was just how significant looking at things differently became to all of us. We were all used to certain routines and the standard ways of doing things. Many disruptions we experienced forced us to look at things differently—some bad, some good. For example, we discovered that all meetings did not have to occur face to face; they could be done virtually faster and more efficiently in many cases. The health and safety of employees took on a whole new, heightened posture, with many workers taking greater interest in it. We were forced to look anew at how we recruited, onboarded, and trained employees. We hired nurses and nursing students to assist with many of our COVID protocols. We discovered a better work/life balance for many employees due to some of the changes made during COVID, as schools were closed, and employees had to fill the childcare gap. We were very fortunate to have had most of the technology to do all these things. What we clearly learned was that business as usual was not the same as before, but we were adaptive, resilient, and innovative in the face of disruption. And that’s a good thing!

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FSO Institute: Bernard, as a software solutions provider to the CPG industry, what are some of the lessons learned based on interactions with your customers, specifically those regarding agility, standard work, discipline, and a focus on people? 

Bernard Cubizolles: The global pandemic was a disruption for most of our customers, facing a broken supply chain and having to adapt to new consumer buying behavior impacting their strategic investment plans.

Many have reported a significant loss of productivity due to the implementation of the new pandemic safety procedures, forcing them to rethink their manufacturing processes overall. They realized that they had spent most of their time optimizing their assets and processes, often ignoring their people. The COVID situation has forced them to reinvent their day-to-day jobs. Refocusing on people is key to being prepared for the future in uncertain times.

Our customers assessed their “digital maturity level” and quickly understood that the usage of digital tools to boost resilience and enable growth was the right thing to do. We have seen an increasing demand for remote control and monitoring tools since day one of the crisis, as mobility is becoming the norm. This applies to many profiles: frontline workers, managers, quality personnel. However, the requirements have changed. Users want more information at their fingertips, not just a copy of their local HMI. Having the right information accessible from anywhere on any device has tremendous value.

The digitization of work procedures is the investment that has demonstrated the greatest impact. The key benefit is to enforce discipline in the execution of processes. Digital work process management drives consistency and repeatability in task execution, and also increases the conformance to procedures and standards. Using digital tools reduces the number of errors and allows users to respond faster to unexpected events or situations in a secured way and mitigate risk.

Customers now require the ability to make quick changes to their application without calling for help from an external resource or a data scientist. Rapid application development tools like no-code apps are the solution to empower engineers and become “leaner.” 

For all these customers, agility is not an empty word. Resilience and adaptability will allow them to come out stronger in the long term. 


PACK EXPO Las Vegas and Healthcare Packaging EXPO (Sept. 27-29, Las Vegas Convention Center) will reunite the packaging and processing community, offering new products, technologies and solutions, while implementing up-to-date protocols for a safe and successful in-person event. Attendee registration is now open. 


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