COVID-19: Dealing with Increased Demand – Quick!

These are uncertain times. Many businesses are suffering as a result of drastic, although necessary, Government measures which have seen the UK largely come to a standstill across most sectors. If your business is fortunate enough to be in demand, that can come with its own challenges – especially with the added pressure of a health crisis! People need your products/services quickly, and in the most extreme cases, people’s lives might depend on your business being successful in meeting the ever-increasing demand over the coming months.

One thing is certain, this situation can’t be resolved quickly, and we can expect more disruption with more Government measures being introduced by the day. Even with Government efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 the cases are ongoing and it’s clear the UK is not yet at the peak of these cases. This means demand is going to keep increasing in many sectors, in line with the spread of the virus. So, what can these businesses do to make sure they are successful in delivering what’s needed? What’s more, if your workforce is being forced to self-isolate, that means capacity problems – so how can you deliver on an increase in demand? Even if you’re confident on how you can achieve this, are you confident you can do it quickly? 

Simply jamming more into your system won’t get orders through any quicker. There is a common assumption that ‘the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish’. This is rarely the reality. The fact is, Work in Process (WIP), lead-times and output are all inextricably linked. Adding more WIP without considering the other links in the chain will only slow the process down! 

Time is of the essence. The first step towards meeting increased demand is agreement on the problem. Your staff need to be aware of what’s going on and aligned on the priorities. You need to agree on the best way to deal with capacity, and you need to do it quickly. The obvious answer would be to invest in additional capacity but hold off doing this straight away. Absolutely, brainstorm your options at the beginning of the ‘ramp up’ process and plan what investment will be needed; overtime, new equipment, sub-contracting? Agree on the best options now, but action them later. To ensure you get the most out of your investment, you have some work to do with the capacity you currently have available to you.  

Deal with the WIP level. To efficiently reduce your lead-times, you need to get WIP down as close to the minimum level as possible, without affecting capacity. Once you’ve cut your lead-times, physically remove all the WIP which is dated outside of these new, shorter lead-times. You’ll know you’re done when there are low queues on the shop-floor but you’re not starving capacity. It’s all about speed. You need the flow through your system to be fast, so decisions need to be made quickly. If there is less on the shop-floor, things will move faster and there will be less room for error – fewer choices means fewer mistakes. The added benefit to reducing WIP is that bottlenecks will begin to emerge. The queues you are left with will point to where the bottlenecks in your system reside.

Next you need to increase output, and quickly. In our experience, we’ve found that usually these bottleneck operations are not being managed as optimally as possible. It is crucial to manage bottlenecks efficiently now because if you invest in a suboptimal system, you will only be performing sub-optimally on a greater scale – at a higher expense! There is often a large amount of capacity to be gained from efficiently managing your bottlenecks, if you don’t do this now, you won’t be gaining as much when you invest. 

You need to be operating your bottleneck resource as close to 100% as possible – stagger lunch breaks so that your people can rest but your machine/operation cannot. Optimise your bottleneck’s performance by adhering to the following steps: 

  1. Design and adhere to a finite schedule; a sequence that works best for the operation. This should be determined by maximum output and minimum downtime (reducing the number of setups and interruptions). 
  2. Introduce a quality check operation before the bottleneck to ensure that it won’t be working on any defective parts/processes. 
  3. Likewise, introduce quality check after the bottleneck to make sure nothing is wrong with the operation itself. If it is, fix it immediately – if your bottleneck isn’t running properly, you’re not making money. 
  4. Prioritise orders so that they hit their slot with the bottleneck; make sure they get there in time. 
  5. Monitor the schedule and deal with any disruptions.  

In our experience, following this procedure can give you 10-30% more capacity (depending on your environment) and therefore an increase in output of up to 30% – without spending a penny on additional investment. Do all of this quickly and then switch on your – already agreed upon – additional capacity measures: more shifts, more resources, sub-contracting, etc.  

When looking to ramp-up quickly there are a few things to consider.  

Firstly, decision-making cannot be a long, drawn out process. You need to consider all options immediately; actions need to be pre-approved with budget assigned and an action plan in place. Importantly, the lead-time to action needs to determine which action you take. For example, when investing in additional capacity, you might be considering purchasing a machine which won’t arrive for 10 weeks – it might therefore be quicker to sub-contract the work out. Efficient pre-planning will enable you to get moving quickly when the time to execute these actions comes. 

Secondly, the internal process needs to be polished quickly. When we work with clients and speed is of the essence, we complete the steps above (reduce lead-times, remove WIP, schedule bottlenecks, establish quality check before and after bottlenecks, prioritise orders on the shop floor and comply to schedule adherence metrics) in a matter of days. Then, our sole focus becomes bottleneck performance to keep output high and embed the new behaviours.  

If you focus, this can be done in days. Increase your output by 10-30%, then introduce additional measures to increase it even further. 

We understand that if you are currently working in an environment which is struggling to keep up with the increasing demand, especially in the case of medical supplies, you are under a lot of pressure and need answers quickly. If you have any further questions or would like to know how to implement these ideas rapidly, we are offering a free, no-obligation phone call with our Managing Director Andy Watt. Andy is an industry expert and is offering his time to ensure UK business can cope over the next few months. Book in some time now by phoning 01234 834510, or message him directly on LinkedIn  

By Phil Snelgrove, Lauren Wiles