Identifying and Eliminating Waste Caused by COVID-19

Posted by Steve Sandercook on Sep 16, 2020 2:59:27 PM

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Written by Steve Sandercock and Greg Thompson.


Early in the lean journey you are taught about the 8 Wastes by using the acronym DOWNTIME – Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-Utilized Personnel, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra Processing. You’ve spent valuable resources training your team and implementing a set of tools to improve flow, improve quality, and to make more money. How has that changed with the arrival of COVID-19?

Let’s look at three areas that have most likely been impacted and are interrelated.


Pre-COVID-19, were your production lines nice and tight? You probably had cells setup with teammates in close proximity. What used to take seconds to move parts from one process to another may take much longer because of social distancing. Are you requiring special handling of parts? If so, how much extra waiting is created? Have you split the workforce into multiple shifts to reduce the number of people being in the plant at any given time? What used to be completed during a single shift now takes two or three shifts to complete.

Have you added other safety precautions that negatively impact production time such as taking temperatures, staggering break times, staggering lunch breaks, the need to put on and take off PPE


This relates directly to Waiting if your team is socially distanced. Parts that used to travel inches to the next process are being moved at least 6 feet. Are parts traveling farther to get to a machining center?


Did you install protective barriers as part of the social distancing that adds to unnecessary movement? Did you have to move machines and other equipment for the safety of your staff that is now causing inefficiencies?

We could spend the next couple of years debating whether all of this was necessary. The fact is that you really didn’t have a choice based on the information you had back in the first quarter of 2020. You couldn’t risk losing a significant amount of capacity at any given time; better safe than sorry. The next question you need to answer is whether you’re going to go back to normal, and when? Neither has an easy answer.

If the first answer is yes, we’re moving people, equipment and processes back to normal, then you already know what that looks like. It then comes down to determining when.

If the first answer is no, people, equipment and processes are staying as is, then we should take a step back and re-evaluate everything. Eliminating waste caused by COVID-19 may not be possible; however, there are likely ways that those wastes can be minimized.

There is no silver bullet, no easy answer in addressing all the challenges COVID-19 has thrown at you. Every business will have unique challenges. Don’t try to do this by yourself. Take this opportunity to tap into your employees’ ideas and creativity. Changes were likely made in haste when COVID-19 first hit, and you did the best you knew how to at that time. If you haven’t re-evaluated the new process, do so. Review the 8 wastes with your employees and ask for their input. Give them some rough boundaries regarding COVID-19 requirements, but don’t make them too rigid…you may be able to find ways to accommodate ideas or one idea may trigger another one. Perhaps there are new ways to accomplish social distancing without as much distance. Maybe machining centers can be adjusted to reduce Waiting, Transportation and Motion. Additional automation may be part of the answer by identifying processes that are dull, dirty, or dangerous. Collaborative robots are now cost effective, easy to program, and easy to move.

Necessity in the mother of invention. You shouldn’t use COVID-19 as an excuse to not continue to improve. Even if you’re hobbled and not running on all cylinders, keep the mindset and energy of Continuous Improvement (CI) going. Finding ways to eliminate waste will make jobs easier which will be welcome by all.

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Steve Sandercook

Written by Steve Sandercook

Topics: lean Manufacturing, manufacturers, manufacturing, continuous improvement

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