by Teri Danielson
As we enter week 8 of the “stay at home orders” in Oregon, I have been reflecting on what the future might hold for the food industry, and other industries and businesses in our state and country. After talking to people throughout manufacturing and other industries about how they are managing during this crisis, I am seeing many companies demonstrating exceptional leadership, engagement and focus.
This got me wondering, given the challenges that COVID-19 is presenting, why are some businesses performing so well, what is it businesses are doing well to address the changing environment and how do businesses keep these practices going as we move forward?
What I would like to suggest, based on my observations: The exceptional performance many companies are exhibiting is an example of how we are more effective when priorities are clear, businesses are focused and aligned around the work that needs to get done and there are minimal distractions.
When the stay at home orders were first issued, most of Northwest Food Solutions current projects were postponed. And rightfully so. Our food manufacturing clients were facing loss of their food service and restaurant volume and larger than normal growth of grocery volume, coupled with resource constraints and general difficulties associated with navigating COVID implications to the workforce. The food industry is considered “critical infrastructure” and companies have been heads down in triage mode.
As the crisis progressed, I started reaching out to clients to find out how it was going. I also began attending industry meetings and talking to others in the industry trying to see what companies might need and how Northwest Food Solutions could provide support.
One assumption I made was that companies would need help implementing COVID best practices, and we offered this help pro bono to our clients. But the clients I talked with had already done this relatively quickly and painlessly. In fact, during these conversations, clients related some great examples of the creative solutions they had come up with to ensure supply of raw materials, to social distance, to split shifts and protect employees, to find PPE, to share resources with other companies, to prioritize manufacture of products that were selling well in grocery and stop manufacturing products that had low volume. That concept of focus and prioritization struck me again and again as I listened to industry leaders sharing their strategies and the creative workarounds they implemented.
This idea of focus and prioritization is a common theme in the consulting services we provide to companies. Usually at the start of a project, when a client has brought us in to help solve a specific problem, we often see that people and resources are stretched thin by too many projects and distractions. Leaders do not always know how to prioritize, so as a result, their teams are doing everything. No matter what “project” we work on with a team, we always are working with the team to prioritize the project within the larger scope of company work and help teams figure out how to get the project work done effectively. It is at the core of what we teach, even though it is almost never what we are hired to do.
So, what is different in the COVID world? Now, we are all being forced to prioritize. Some things we have seen change: The ten new product launches planned for this year…not happening. The twenty-five low volume skus that consume 70% of the teams resources to produce…shelved. Sales travel to customers…it’s temporarily not happening or happening via Zoom. Vendor and auditor visits…they have been reduced or eliminated. In the COVID world, companies are aligned around a few common goals and those goals are clear to everyone. 1) Protect the workforce and 2) meet the increased demand of the most needed product. So simple and so clear.
This idea of focusing on the few important things as a more productive approach is backed up by science. There are a multitude of papers that have been published on the how multi-tasking or working on too many things at once destroys capacity and creativity. According to Teresa Amabile, who wrote the Harvard Business Review paper “Creativity Under the Gun”, “It’s not so much the deadline that’s the problem; it’s the distractions that rob people of the time to make that creative breakthrough.”
Without all the distractions, companies can focus on work that adds the most value to the customer and develop creative ways to manage through the unique challenges they are facing. Companies are effectively moving mountains to keep their product in stock and their workforce safe.
To be fair, not every company is doing this successfully, but I am heartened to see so many food and beverage manufacturers performing admirably in this crisis using their own resources. We are going to return to a new normal soon, and it is likely that the way we do business will also be altered as the country opens back up.
Looking to the future, the rules have changed, and things are going to be different for all of us going forward. With that in mind, I would love to see companies commit time to sit down with their teams, recognize what has been accomplished, how it was achieved, and take a hard look at how narrowing focus and prioritizing has impacted the company operations. What are the learnings from this crisis that can be implemented into regular operations? Reflecting on the accomplishments, what made them possible and charting a new path with resulting actions will help all of us in the food and beverage industry continue to navigate and prosper as we move forward.
And of course, Northwest Food Solutions would love to help with this work. We are in this together and committed to continuing to support the organizational health of the food and beverage industry in the Northwest. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with feedback and questions.