Peter Bigelow

We must retain our new agility even after the pandemic ends.  

Nothing makes you flexible like a crisis. Yet, as rough as it can be for a person to quickly shift gears, it is significantly more daunting for a corporation to do so.

The entirety of my working career, the mantra of any good business consultant or culture guru has been be flexible and embrace change. Whether an organization is implementing a TQM (total quality management) plan or struggling with financial survival because “plan A” no longer works, embracing flexibility and rapid change is never easy – and often unsuccessful. The larger the organization, the harder it can be. Embracing change and becoming flexible often only occurs when no other option remains, or in short, extinction awaits.

In these most unusual times of Covid-19, however, most people and virtually every company have been forced to embrace radical change overnight. Some change is cultural. To wit: Where employees work and how they communicate has stretched some companies much further than they could have imagined a few short months ago. For instance, large, centrally located staffs have reconstituted in home offices. Restaurants now are embracing outdoor seating and simplified, modified menus. And everyone, in one form or another, has become more open to wearing masks, shopping following in-store traffic patterns, and greeting friends with elbows rather than handshakes. All this change has been rapid, requiring flexibility of thought and action.

As extraordinary as these cultural changes are, some large corporations have demonstrated they can make an elephant dance. Indeed, the ability of some companies so rigid they have the flexibility of a steel I-beam, in industries that traditionally take years to “change,” has radically changed what they produce to support the common good of fighting Covid-19 virtually overnight.

The auto industry has a deserved reputation for moving relatively slowly. It typically takes years for an automaker to develop new technology, tool it and produce it. However, Ford and GM, companies not known for producing medical equipment, rapidly converted manufacturing facilities, bringing them up to medical standards (read: cleanroom environment), tooled, and are successfully producing ventilators. Fiat-Chrysler was not left out; they produced many of the parts that go into ventilators made by Ford, GM and others. If these industrial behemoths can show the flexibility and the appetite for such radical change, imagine if they harness those traits when rolling out the next generation of automobiles.

They are not alone. Bacardi, Brown & Forman, and LVMH – companies known for their spirits and wines – have entered the hand sanitizer business. These companies, as well as cosmetic companies such as L’Oréal, have shifted gears to new, very different product lines and rapidly scaled to volume production.

S.C. Johnson and Dow, two major chemical companies with a good number of overlapping/competitive products, started to work together to produce hand sanitizers and wipes in volume to stock health workers, first responders and their production employees. Competitors working together with employees who have the flexibility to shift production and share technical data again demonstrates how rapid change can be.

Face mask production has been the catalyst for virtually every clothing company of late. A corporate neighbor of mine is a supplier to Brooks Brothers, the high-end clothing store. It converted a factory for making shirts into one for masks over a weekend. Other clothing suppliers, which served everyone from high-end boutiques to Walmart, rapidly and successfully converted manufacturing to masks and medical garments. Whether homemade over a kitchen table or produced in mass by a large clothing manufacturer, countless people and businesses embraced change and demonstrated flexibility.

Our electronics industry always needs to be nimble and flexible, as the technologies we are involved with constantly change. Our usual rate of change is nothing compared with what’s required to fight a pandemic, however. With scores of electronics firms now producing medical equipment and ventilators, and so many in their supply base providing the chemicals and raw materials necessary to get the job done, ours is among the markets embracing real change.

A vast majority of people and companies across the globe have had to react to the realities of this pandemic. Flexibility is the common trait we have all embraced. Change, painful as it is at times, is the desired result of exercising flexibility. When our lives finally return to a semblance of normal, however, which companies or industries will leverage the lessons learned and adapt them into their corporate culture – their business approach – for competitive advantage?

We have all been witness to sudden and rapid change, and our flexibility has been exercised and stretched. Those who take to heart the advantages that can be realized by staying nimble, being flexible, and embracing – rather than avoiding – change, personally as well as throughout the organization, have the best chance of long-term success.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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