There is a reason why manufacturers are turning towards lean during these uncertain times. Lean manufacturing became popular during World War II when hardship and uncertainty ruled the world economy.

Companies were forced to reduce costs during a time of radical change and yet had meet their customers' quality and delivery needs. So, they learned to optimize their systems and innovate, giving birth to modern-day lean manufacturing technologies.

Flash forward to 2020 when an unexpected virus brought the whole world to its knees. It has affected all corners of the world. Manufacturers have to drive efficiencies and agility in new ways by adjusting, adapting, and persevering in this environment.

COVID-19 has led to furloughed teams, order cancellations, and inaccurate forecasts created massive supply chain gaps. While we can't plan for the unexpected, we can adapt, pivot, and position ourselves for resiliency and agility.

Manufacturers are relying more on lean to optimize inventory decision-making in a world of constant turbulence. The move towards the next wave of agile factories and resilient supply chains will set the stage for the future. A technology and team-driven approach to innovative inventory management will help them come out of a crisis robust and better positioned to handle the next disruption.

Some of the key drivers in lean decision making during COVID-19 are:

  • Identifying and prioritizing the most significant points of impact and shift focus to those areas of production
  • Improving visibility into each part to prevent missed deliveries and penalties while maintaining adequate inventory
  • Making way to update inventory and production with the right automation and making room to pivot overnight
  • Equipping teams with automation and artificial intelligence (AI) and training them to do more with less to prevent future disruptions

Lean principles are helping companies get back on their feet, yet many still blame lean manufacturing for inventory shortages. At the early stages of the pandemic, stores ran out of supply faster than we have ever witnessed. From toilet paper and wipes to electronics and frozen foods, everything was out of supply. Empty stores aisles ruled the social media for quite a few weeks.

Concepts like lean manufacturing and just-in-time inventory faced the brunt of everyone's anger. The reality is lean or not; no manufacturer could have been prepared for sufficient inventory to address an unexpected event like the pandemic.

So while many call lean a villain, it is, in reality, the principle that may just save the industry. Lean is flexible and all about maximizing customer value while minimizing waste. At its core, lean is a catalyst for change. During COVID-19, lean has highlighted areas of weaknesses and immediately set out to rectify those mistakes.

Manufacturers who have embraced lean have laser focus on optimizing assets, technologies, products flow, and services through entire value streams. Lean's flexibility incorporates quick changeover techniques, level scheduling, lot size reduction, even cross-training of employees. These tools and tactics could help enhance manufacturing ability and reduce lead times to address changes in demand or changes in product type quickly.

With high stakes and short deadlines, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated lean's importance for the manufacturing industry. It has shown that leadership and agility can always find new and effective strategies to maximize production efficiency. Companies can realize the growth possible in zero-waste production and build on their positive actions to create stronger customer loyalty in the post-COVID world.