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Manufacturing Industry Updates

Necessity Breeds Innovation


Best practices for navigating change and driving transformation during the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the manufacturing sector in unprecedented ways. Certainly, manufacturing businesses have been severely impacted. In fact, according to a recent Vistage survey of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, 70 percent say their revenues have decreased.

Manufacturer CEOs also cite significant disruptions to their supply chains (59 percent) and employee productivity (58 percent). The majority of these manufacturing leaders expect economic conditions in the U.S. to worsen over the next 12 months and that their own revenues will continue dropping over that same period.

Yet, the coronavirus crisis has also resulted in the development of new processes, practices and innovation that have transformed manufacturing businesses across the country as they courageously face a new reality. We’ve seen first-hand as business leaders have come together to innovate and find solutions in the midst of these challenging times.

Automation and Employee Commitment

Take for example, Kydex, LLC, a thermoplastic manufacturer located in Pennsylvania. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kydex worked with customers to produce a wide variety of plastic products for 11 industries across five continents.

Employing 400 workers, the company’s three campuses came to a grinding halt at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine. Yet, almost overnight, Kydex was able to shift production of plastic sheets for aviation to become an essential business, producing life-saving medical devices such as ventilators and sterilization units. In just four days, 400 people were working in unison, all three plants were running 24/7, and Kydex was paying bonuses and developing new products.   

Through automation technology, Kydex’s production lines are perfectly designed to not only produce the needed medical devices but also to easily allow for social distancing with three people responsible for each line. They are each positioned in a way that keeps them six feet apart, but close enough to communicate on quality requirements, transition and the other skills required for the company’s “Quick Response Manufacturing Process.”

To support employees during this unusual time, the company has put extra measures in place to ensure they don’t have to worry about personal time off, pay or job security should they need time as a result of COVID-19. Manufacturing staff has been cross-trained in case reinforcements are needed.

Additionally, office staff with experience on the manufacturing floor are going back to production roles to ensure commitments are kept to both existing and new customers. Local restaurants have even jumped in to help fuel the round-the-clock production schedule and are delivering hot meals to keep workers energized.

The company’s lightning-quick transformation can be attributed to its commitment to technology and a collaborative working environment, along with its committed staff that is working overtime to do meaningful work and deliver for customers.

Keeping Staff Safe

The importance of supporting employees especially during a crisis has also been crucial during this time at Volk Packaging, a third-generation family manufacturing business with facilities in Maine and Massachusetts. Volk was deemed an essential business due to its support of other manufacturers producing toilet paper. This enabled the company to continue operations uninterrupted during the COVID-19 crisis.

Volk quickly put into place a variety of new processes to keep their employees safe, including increasingly using the PA system to limit the need for in-person meetings, splitting up shifts, closing buildings to all but essential personnel and keeping the cafeteria off-limits to more than one person at a time. But when local schools closed, company leaders had to get creative about childcare for their employees.

That’s when CEO Derek Volk took to Facebook. He put out an appeal for babysitters, created a list for his staff and arranged to cover all of the costs.

Volk is also regularly on the plant floor to check in with employees, hear their concerns and demonstrate his shared commitment and appreciation of their hard work. It’s important to see and hear from leaders during a time of crisis. In this case, it also served to ease workers’ fears about coming to work.

Best Practices for Driving Change

In speaking with CEOs during this time, a few common best practices have emerged for leading through this crisis and effectively driving change:

  • Focus on the fundamentals. In the midst of disruption, stay focused on the fundamentals: people, mission and values. These can be the stable foundation on which transformation can be successfully built.
  • Put people first. An “employee first” approach can help ensure worker and customer retention. Good employees are critical to making change happen. Make them your priority. And make sure they know it.
  • Overcommunicate with everyone. Keep the lines of communication open with all of your stakeholders, especially employees and customers. Reiterate the importance of teamwork and trust in your company as you keep important audiences updated. The more you communicate now, the better.
  • Demonstrate how your culture impacts change. A strong culture can help steer transformation and make it easier. Make it a point to frequently showcase examples of how your culture — including its behaviors and values are working to make change more successful.
  • Share responsibility. Let employees know they have an invaluable role in the changes that need to take place in the company. The most challenging aspect of any business transformation initiative is human behavior. Whether it’s the introduction of a new technology initiative or a major shift in operations, transformation is always dragged down by humans’ reluctance to change. Often, this reluctance comes from fear of the unknown. Get your employees involved early so they not only understand their own roles and responsibilities but champion them.

The importance of leadership, culture and putting people first have long been important best practices for business success. Today, they are even more critical in maneuvering through uncertain times, driving transformation and, ultimately, benefiting companies and communities across the country.

Joe Galvin is chief research officer for Vistage, a community of more than 23,000 CEOs, senior executives and business owners across an array of industries in 20 countries. For more information visit Vistage’s  Leading in Challenging Times Resource Center.