Production Planning from home

Production Planning from home

Working from Home

As we come out of lockdown and businesses start to return to “normal” a key challenge is what is the new “normal”. A key change is working from home. For years people have spoken about working from home in dubious terms. There have been lots of studies into it and it seemed to be a good idea but doubts still remained. I’m not going to go into all of those but here is a good video from 2017 where Nicholas Bloom from Stanford talks about working from home.

And here are two articles from addressing the positives and negatives of teams working from home:

The shutdown will have varied from country to country, company to company and even department to department. Some companies I work with shut down completely. Others had to keep going because what they produced was deemed essential (e.g. food). In those companies they had to follow official guidelines of where possible people should work from home.

For some staff it is easy to define if they should stay at home or come to work. Finance, HR etc can probably work from home. Maintenance and people working on the line need to be physically there. But what about Production Planning? That is a harder question to answer. If the plan is something that can be locked in and requires minimum changes and interaction with the production floor then working from home should be easy. Generally in these cases there is a very stable process with reliable supply and demand all underpinned by a Planning system which sits as part of an overall ERP system. Everything flows seamlessly and predictably.

However for a lot of companies, probably the majority, things are not as stable as that. Don’t feel anxious if you are one of those. If you read the theory and academic literature on Planning you may well assume you are a shameful outlier. You aren’t. A good Planning Department should sit as the hub around which production, sales, logistics etc all rotate and therefore any instability or uncertainty in the process will flow into the planning department and into the plan. A good planning department should be set up to cope with that instability and process it in the most effective way for the customer and the production facility. So the challenge is how do you replicate that interaction if the planner is working from home?

And remember we are now coming out of lockdown. But that doesn’t mean the working from home issue is no longer on the table. Firstly there may be a second or a third wave of Covid-19. We simply don’t know. And even if there isn’t it is likely that this experience will have increased the desire of many to work from home because they will believe they have proven it has worked. And if you don’t provide that option there is a very real risk that they will move to a company who will. I have been talking to companies who believe working from home will save them money, improve productivity, help staff retention, and is a competitive benefit they can offer in the jobs market.

So what are the tricks that I have seen work well in companies where the planners are working from home:

  1. Maintain the same routines. If there are daily meetings between planning and the production team have an option to hold them over Zoom or a similar product (Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Meet etc). Do likewise with any weekly Plan preview meetings. These meetings are critical to getting buy-in from the whole team for the plan and should continue. Make sure anyone working from home, or offsite, are displayed on screen and are therefore part of the meeting. Cameras on! You don’t have to invest in expensive video conferencing equipment in a conference room to make this happen. I’m currently using a Logitec C920 webcam and a Yeti-Snowball microphone and they work great for both individual zoom calls and meeting rooms with small groups.
  2. Put the physical infrastructure in place. You will of course need to replace the board with a flat screen TV. If it is a Smart TV your IT department should be able to add that TV to the network to display a presentation. If that is proving difficult or expensive then I have seen companies use a basic flat-screen TV with connected to old PC running Google Suite and Zoom. A bit of thinking outside the box should get a solution working without great expense. Once that infrastructure is in place you should be able to run the daily meetings largely as before. It will seem different for a few days but people will quickly adapt.
  3. Move metrics boards online. Many companies review a whiteboard full of handwritten metrics in their morning meetings. You have move any metrics from on a large whiteboard to being inputted on an electronic file. People now must update their daily metrics on the file rather than on the board. Google Suite works very well in this regard as it allows multiple people to update the document at the same time.
  4. Give your staff dedicated work phones. If a lot of interaction between planners and production happens via phones then give the planners a dedicated phone to take calls. That is important because it reduces the friction that happens when your personal phone becomes integral to your business. It also allows them to turn off that phone at the end of their working day. And that is important. Giving someone a phone to replace their 9-5 phone does not mean they are now on call 24/7. If they weren’t before the lock-down then the fastest way to lose them to another company is to assume they are after the lock-down.
  5. Use Video calls. If you are afraid of the cost of extra mobile calls between team members then require them to use WhatsApp etc. However I encourage clients to make sure calls happen on Zoom, or Face-time, or Google Meets. Some people may find this intrusive but the reality is if they are working from home they are working. If someone could call into their office for clarity and a face to face conversation then let that face to face conversation still happen, just over the internet. Face to face builds a relationship that a voice call simply won’t.
  6. Develop your planning processes to be as electronic as possible. I have seen companies that still today rely on printed, signed copies of work orders. Examine why that is the case. If they have to be printed why do they have to be signed. If they still have to be signed can they be electronically signed. Very often the paper based system is a result of one of two things: (a) a lack of trust. Sign this so I know who to blame. That doesn’t work. Either your training or your culture needs to be fixed. Or, most commonly, (b) we’ve always done it that way. It may have been the best way in 2000 but that doesn’t mean it is the best way in 2020
  7. Use electronic systems for communication. Microsoft Teams and Slack are two well known team collaboration systems. These offer a huge opportunity to open lines of information flow that never existed before both inside and outside the office. Google Suite comes with a calendar tool that allows shared team calendars. and shared documents. It also comes with Google Drive which allows easy online shared storage of files etc. Another tool that is useful for remote brainstorming etc is Miro. I have started using that recently, especially the whiteboard function, and find it very powerful once people get used to it. To manage a project remotely, assign tasks and track progress you can use one of many different project management tools but my favorite is Trello. You don’t need to invest serious amounts of money into these electronic systems.
  8. Invest in decent IT equipment. Particularly laptops. Be it in the office or at home a slow laptop running large excel files or an memory intensive planning system will make a planner’s life miserable. Processing speed is key to a happy and productive planning department.

So those are just a few suggestions on how to facilitate planners working from home. If you have anything you would like to add to the list post it in the comments and I’ll inculde it.