The COVID-19 virus has quickly shifted the way we conduct business. Many workers are now required to stay at home. As a result, remote work is fast becoming the new normal. These unique times come with a silver lining. You can use this time to reshape your business. Take the time to change how people work, not just where they work.
Change is hard, so most people resist. The hardest part of any major change is “unfreezing” the organization. Events have delivered the motivation on a plate, you must change to survive. With a little directed effort, you can streamline your organization. Take some clues from the manufacturing world and emerge even more productive.
The Manufacturing World
Work today is largely knowledge based. Most of your workers don’t make physical products. Their days consist of tapping on keys and seeing the output on a screen. As a result, the shift to remote work may seem simple. However, you must take care to make the shift and drive productivity.
Manufacturing drove massive changes to the way we work. Farmers transformed into factory workers. The manufacturing model created huge leaps in productivity. We can look at the history of manufacturing for guidance.
Prior to manufacturing, experts hand-crafted the bulk of trade goods available. Factories produced goods in bulk much more cheaply without experts. Standardization won out over craftsmanship. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black (Henry Ford).”
In order to increase the output of manufacturing, Ford needed standardization. Factories produced standard products. They did so by standardizing every step of the manufacturing process. As a result, factories produced goods in higher quantities and at a lower cost.
Manufacturing relies on an assembly line. Raw materials start at one end. Each station performs a specific change. Workers at each station complete a standard set of steps. Units pass along the line until a finished product comes off the end of the line. When a unit moves from one station to the next, quality and consistency is crucial. Any quality failures can grind the line to a halt.
Manufacturing Lessons for Remote Work
Although the manufacturing model emerged over a century ago, it still has relevance in a remote work environment. The manufacturing model provides several learnings:
- Finished products are produced by a virtual assembly line.
- Think in terms of units produced so you reinforce the assembly line concept.
- Standardize the work of each station to maximize productivity.
- Enforce quality standards to enable each station to work together effectively.
- Don’t rely on highly skilled experts.
You are the leader of your company. You are responsible for designing, deploying and maintaining the overall system. Optimizing a single station can lead to a sub-optimal system. Instead, optimize the entire system for maximum productivity.
Identify the units that roll off the end of your virtual assembly line. Document the steps you use to produce your outputs. For many, this may be difficult at first. You are not alone if you rely heavily on experts. Experts tend to work from implicit knowledge. They “just know” how things work. As a result, they struggle to write things down.
It is impossible to manage when you rely on implicit knowledge. Look for these red flags.
- It takes a long time to bring new staff “up to speed”.
- You can’t (or don’t) measure results.
- Your results are inconsistent depending on who does the work.
- You are over-reliant on a few people.
- Things never seem to get better, despite your best efforts.
- You can’t predict future performance.
- Your experts are the go-to for everything.
- Your experts have become a bottleneck.
Putting It All Together
There is a simple solution if you find yourself in this position. Don’t ask your remote workers how they work. Instead, watch them directly. Get in the trenches and see for yourself. Learn how your team really works.
Start by documenting the process at a high level. Watch everyone performing the most common tasks. Use a video Find the differences between individuals. Decide the best way to do things. Deploy this best practice approach to everyone.
Once the standard process is in place, begin monitoring. Define what good looks like to set your quality standard. Every unit must either pass or fail. Hold everyone accountable. When a unit fails, reprocess it from the start until it passes. Count the units passing units produced by each person.
As a result, you know who your best and worst agents are. Use this baseline to set a target for everyone. Because you are using the standard process, everyone can match the best performer. Focus your manager’s time on removing roadblocks for agents. Over time you will see incredible jumps in productivity and quality.
Taking the time to standardize your process results in a number of benefits.
- Productivity increases meaning you spend less and accomplish more.
- Quality improves meaning you deliver units to customers faster with fewer errors.
- Customer satisfaction improves as a result.
- Remote work becomes predictable and measurable.
- Managers focus on making workers successful.
- Workers feel fulfilled.
This is the perfect time to prepare your business for the next stage. Before you know it, things will begin to ramp up again. So, don’t waste the opportunity you have been given. The benefits will provide a return on investment long after the crisis ends. Make your remote work your best work!