Industry Forum
Published April 2020

With a quarter of the UK’s businesses temporarily closed by the Coronavirus and manufacturing output forecast to plunge by 55% this spring, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, there is a strong focus on the likely impacts of the crisis on our economy, both now and in the future. Fewer column inches have so far been dedicated to answering the question, ‘What can companies do right now to prepare for a good restart after COVID?’

There is little doubt that the human and financial costs of the COVID-19 pandemic will be vast and are yet to be fully manifested and understood. Amid this, the impacts on manufacturers are significant and importantly, diverse. Some makers of healthcare, food and household products, for example, have had to square off a massive increase in demand with a disrupted supply chain and reduced workforce, while those in other sectors have been compelled to partially or completely close factories. Many manufacturing businesses will undoubtedly be amongst those forced to shut down for good.

But amidst the devastating losses, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Companies that do survive this situation are likely to emerge from it operationally stronger, with more robust and agile supply chains and ways of working. What is more, although there may be continuing uncertainty about how much longer lockdown will continue, there are signs that government is looking at a phased, sector-by-sector ending of it, with manufacturing, logistics and food-supply businesses among the first to reopen their doors – ahead of other sectors and the wider population. So, the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into view and may be here quicker than we think.

You can’t control when, but you can control how

While we may not be able to accurately predict when plants will be able to recommence operations in part or in full, we can certainly consider how they should go about it.

The best possible restart will help to minimise the financial pain caused by the COVID-19 lockdown and provide the optimum launchpad for a full and rapid recovery. Furthermore, companies that manage their start-up well will secure themselves a competitive advantage by default. Those that don’t, risk compounding the cost of the lockdown with damage to their reputation caused by failure to supply on time.

It goes without saying, therefore, that you want your reactivation to be as quick and low-cost as possible. This is known as a ‘vertical’ start-up, because it requires the minimum amount of time – and therefore money – to reach full production, meaning the productivity curve climbs almost vertically.

And right now, while most day-to-day operations are on hold and you have the breathing space to think about it, is the right time to plan your vertical start-up. The sooner you start, the more time you will have to identify and plan for any issues you may encounter.

Focus on what you know

It’s perhaps easy to feel a little bit daunted by this. After all, none of us have ever been in a situation quite like this before. However, you probably already know more about it than you realise. If you’ve ever opened up a facility in a new location on the other side of the world, or ramped up a new piece of equipment in your SME, then you’re familiar with the types of processes you need to go through to start something new. The same types of approaches apply here. And it’s much more helpful and empowering to focus on what’s familiar about this situation than what’s different or strange about it.

What is more, thanks to lockdown, most of us are now familiar with the concept of interacting remotely with each other through apps like Zoom or Google Meet and are set up to do so, so the experience of working collaboratively online has been demystified. This makes it easier to hit the ground running, even when we’re all working in different physical locations.

Ask the right questions

You don’t need to be an expert in management theory to get this right, and you don’t need to have all the answers. You just need to know the right questions to ask, when to ask them and to whom.

Your start-up planning process should no doubt begin with a brainstorming session of the senior leadership team. However, one of the first questions that group should ask is, “Who do we really need round the (virtual) table to make this happen?” The task in hand is of maximum importance to your business, and you’ll require a winning team to lead it.

Inputs from different departments will be needed at different points in your start-up timeline. Subgroups may be required to take forward specific pieces of your plan, for example, plant maintenance. By working through methodically what needs to happen and in what order, your planning team can work out which people need to participate when. Some may be currently furloughed, so it’s important to work out when they should be brought back into active duty before start-up, to avoid delays.

Another key question that needs to be asked at the outset is, “What do our customers want?” This leads to other important queries about how much your marketplace and business environment have been changed by Coronavirus. Are your customers still in business? Do they still need the same products from you as before, in the same quantities and timeframe?

These in turn lead to questions about materials and machinery. Are the materials you need still readily available? What does your own inventory look like? Have some components surpassed their shelf-life during the lockdown? Is your plant ready to start operating or does it require some maintenance? Who needs to do that and how long will it take? Was it shut down properly? Can you get the parts?

If you’re preparing to ramp down from peak demand rather than starting up, the same kinds of questions will apply, as you seek to match your levels of production to incoming orders. What inventory will be needed where and how can you avoid ending up with excess stock?

The answers to all these and other similar questions will greatly influence your direction and speed of travel. Thinking them through in a methodical way and plotting out the resulting actions sequentially will help to define a water-tight plan to ensure your start-up proceeds as quickly and smoothly as possible.

How you articulate your plan is up to you and will depend on the levels of complexity with which you’re faced. It could be a gated process, driving very clear ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions points, it could be a Gantt chart, or it could be a simple list of actions.

The verticality (i.e. speed) of your start-up will also depend on the nature of your business. If you have a hot process, for example, you may need some time for your furnace to heat up, so your start-up timeline may be more extended.

What’s important is that you consider:

  • who are all the stakeholders in each activity – identify clear ownership of tasks.
  • when each decision and action needs to happen – develop a sequential decision-making process that starts early enough to avoid unplanned delays.

For each action point, you should think through in advance what could go wrong and what alternative approach you can take if you hit a roadblock.

Early management for a vertical start-up

There are some management methodologies that can provide useful pointers here. Perhaps the most relevant is Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), which provides a structured approach to eliminating losses in manufacturing, and, in particular, implementing the perfect ‘vertical’ start-up.

TPM involves eight ‘pillars’ of activity which guide organisations through a structured system to remove all losses from different stages of production processes. The pillar that deals with vertical start-ups is the fifth one, known as Early Management, which aims to help companies implement new products and processes with minimal lead time. Early Management seeks to identify in advance all the things that could go wrong, in plenty of time to take appropriate steps to mitigate the risks.

There are two parts to the Early Management pillar: Early Equipment Management and Early Product Management. Both focus on eliminating the potential for losses through the planning, development and design stages, as well as shortening development lead times, with teams working on different activities simultaneously.

The approach works by developing a shared accountability for success, involving all departments across the plant. While it is more commonly applied to projects relating to installing new plant or launching new products, the technique can also be applied to support a restart, or even managing down from peak production.

TPM and Early Management provide a helpful structure to work through the start-up planning process and make sure you don’t leave gaps, but really, they are just ways to write a really good to-do list.

Reverse fishbone technique

Another simple and helpful tool is the ‘reverse fishbone’ diagram. Instead of working through the fish from a defect or failure at the ‘head’ to then plot out the various causes along the skeleton branches, as in a conventional fishbone, you put your goal – a perfect vertical start-up – at the head and work backwards along the bones to scope out what you need to do to reach it.

The four bone branches cover the four key elements you need to consider: people, processes, equipment and material. Each item on each branch requires an owner. Items can be either actions that you already know need to happen, or they can be questions that must be answered in order to define the next steps.

This simple technique can be used to identify everything necessary to create a plan of action. Furthermore, it’s a helpful tool for enabling multiple stakeholders to participate in managing the start-up process, which supports the aim of sharing accountability for success.

Just get started

While approaches like TPM and reverse fishbone can be helpful, you shouldn’t let the variety of planning tools and techniques out there bamboozle you. Just start somewhere – and start soon. A plan that is 80% right is good enough to get going.

Remember, you know your business best, so don’t be afraid to dive in. If you do feel you need some external support to guide you, do contact us. We can certainly help.


Article written by: Simon Carr, General Manager SMMT Industry Form

Simon has 24 years engineering and operations experience gained within aerospace, industrial processing, automotive, food and drink, defence, electronics, fabrication, petrochemical, offshore systems, pharmaceutical, healthcare and banking. Simon was one of the original Industry Forum recruits and was trained by the Japanese Master Engineers.  Recent assignments include significant capital projects for the Ministry of Defence and in the Oil & Gas sector.

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