The worst part of the global COVID pandemic brought unpredictability and uncertainty to an otherwise stable PCB Industry. Like many in the board business, Sunstone faced increasing demand from essential businesses while also dealing with inconsistent employee availability and social distancing guidelines that slowed the manufacturing process. We knew immediately that even though the status quo had worked to this point, the situation was not temporary, and the operation would have to adapt.
Commitment to Lean Sustains Quality
We have been vocal proponents of the Lean manufacturing philosophy for some time, as it is a foundation for delivering quality to our customers. For the past few years, our Lean culture and adherence to Lean principles helped Sunstone survive and excel during the most challenging business environment in recent memory. COVID renewed and expanded our commitment to Lean principles to sustain the quality of our work and maintain the safety of our employees.
Lean manufacturing is a set of guiding principles aimed at improving efficiencies and productivity—reducing waste in the process. As defined by the Lean Enterprise Institute, the five core principles of Lean are:
- Defining value
- Mapping the value stream
- Creating flow
- Using a pull system
- Pursuing perfection
Lean builds more value into the PCB manufacturing process. Customers benefit from improved products and employees find themselves working in safer conditions. Our Lean work environment made it easier for us to adapt to changing safety requirements brought about by COVID. While many shops struggled with adapting manufacturing processes to social distancing guidelines, Lean practices helped Sunstone more quickly construct a safe, more productive workplace.
The core of Lean is the practice of identifying the true value of every component in the manufacturing process. The pandemic caused us to look more closely at the nature of each task, eliminating those elements of production that did not add value, but perhaps did present risk of transmission. This enhanced attempt to eliminate waste helped us become more profitable, improved employee productivity, and removed unease about COVID risk in the workplace.
Adherence to Lean Practices Makes the Difference
At the outset of the pandemic, we didn’t really have a grand plan to reinvigorate all five Lean manufacturing principles. We just knew we had to adapt to the drastically changed operating environment. Focused on customer satisfaction and employee safety, we took what we were already doing and amplified it to meet each new challenge COVID brought with it.
There was no formal decree about using Lean philosophy to respond, but with the benefit of hindsight, it was clear that was exactly what we did. Like muscle memory that results from persistent training, we relied on our experience with Lean throughout. Even if our efforts to deal with COVID didn’t always result in a classic Lean project or structured application of its principles, Sunstone’s adherence to Lean manufacturing got us through the hardest times and put us on a path to come out stronger than when we went in.
Now, two years after the initial shutdown, we have maintained operations, kept all our employees healthy and employed, continued to satisfy our customer needs, and reacted quickly to environmental changes.
Dedicated Leadership Lights the Way
None of that would have happened without dedicated leadership across the organizational chart. Success with Lean has always required executive management commitment to the core principles. When COVID hit, that commitment was front and center, and communicated throughout the organization. We set expectations appropriately at every level, and recognized small, early victories to build momentum that would take us through the worst of the pandemic.
That momentum was sustained by clear, two-way communication throughout the organization. The great ideas for process improvement and safety enhancement come from the personnel doing the work each day. By keeping the channels of communication wide open, company leadership was ready to hear about opportunities to effect change.
Even with normalcy closer on the horizon, the competitive landscape of the PCB industry may be permanent. If last year taught us nothing, it was that economic disruption can come from anywhere. We can’t predict what the next challenge will be, but we can be as prepared as possible before it arises. Lean offers a path to readiness, one that considers value for the customer and safety for the employee. By making Lean decisions on everything from equipment type to production floor layout in the midst of a crisis, we found ways to improve process we had never even considered in the past.
This column originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.