Executing the Pandemic Pivot

Business success right now depends on companies finding a way to be useful. Then learning from it
Barry Cross
Group of white paper planes in one direction and one red paper plane pointing in different way

Unless you work in health care or a business that’s deemed essential by government, you have undoubtedly seen a significant change in your operations over the last two months. Many of you have had to lay off workers or shutter your doors altogether due to government-mandated shutdowns or the slowdown caused by COVID-19.

While some form of funding is quickly being put in place for small- and medium-sized businesses to help them cope, you, as an owner or manager of a business, may still have operating options.

You’ve probably heard that a number of manufacturers are shifting production to more essential products. There’s the sports equipment company producing face shields for health-care workers. Some manufacturers are shifting to build respirators, and clothing firms are making face masks. Brewers and distillers are producing hand sanitizer. And hotels are converting rooms to pandemic hospital clinics.

The common theme here is that these firms are looking at the current environment and saying, “What do people need?” and “How would I do that, if we decided to help?” Leadership at these companies is looking past their traditional offering and “what we always do”.

These shifts have a number of benefits for the firms making them, not the least of which is the financial life-vest from continuing revenues and having work for their employees. Longer term, these organizations are also developing new skills and perspectives that will help them drive process, product or service innovation down the road. 

Consider two potential pivots for your company while under the shroud of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. How can we help?

There is, or will be shortly, municipal, provincial or federal funding available for firms that can find a way to produce goods or services that are desperately needed during the crisis. The U.S. government decision (though later reversed) to restrict 3M from shipping N-95 masks outside America, for example, likely means countries like Canada will figure out how to produce them locally. Restaurants may be able to produce meal kits for hospitals, the homeless or first responders.

To see how you can help, look at your own operation. But focus less on the intended output of the operation and more on the processes, people and facilities. Ask, what else can we do with all this?

2. Is there a way to do the same work under pandemic restrictions?

Current government rules do not preclude work by non-essential services as long as those services are provided online or by phone, or a product is made available for pickup or delivery. Consumers are aware of this and are utilizing some of these services already.

As a business owner, appreciate that the public is quickly growing bored, especially as people realize there really is nothing on TV despite the thousands of choices on Netflix and Prime. They need something to do. Consider then: Is there some way to do our work and minimize or eliminate content or processes? Can we take telephone orders or e-payment where everything historically has been done in-person? How can we add value, fill a gap or reduce pain in some way for our customers?

That same restaurant from earlier could offer cooking demonstrations or healthy eating podcasts, while shifting to takeout service. Building-supply companies can offer how-to clinics online while supporting curbside pickup of necessary materials. Vineyards and breweries are taking orders online and shipping product to their customers’ doors. None of this is new. But now firms are taking advantage of the slower period and focusing on simplifying these processes and facilitating customer interactions. Some of these businesses, by the way, are discovering the hard way that their websites have been under-designed given the new volume of online shoppers.

I bought paint the other day from a local paint store, because, well, I needed something to do. We ­­­­used to go into the store to pick up paint colour chips, then hold them up to our walls, then go back to the store to buy paint. This process took two trips. Now, the paint store has put all its colour chips online. DIY painters just hold their phones up to the wall, pick a colour and call in their order. The paint is ready for pickup at the store’s door in 20 minutes.

Now, if that was my store, I would look around at all the retail space I pay for every month as part of my lease. The place we go to in Kingston runs about 1,200 square feet, plus the warehouse area in the back. A big chunk of that store is paint displays, paint-chip racks and displays of rollers, brushes and trays. As I look around, I would realize I don’t need most of this space (apologies to landlords). I could eliminate the whole paint-chip process (and the cost of the chips themselves) with a couple of computer kiosks. Sure, displays of paint, brushes and rollers may be effective in some merchandising strategies. But do you really pick paint by looking at the can? Or choose rollers by feeling their texture? We could reduce the footprint of that store by probably half while still displaying samples of all product, with inventory held “out back”. Lower costs and a simpler process for customers are big wins anytime.

New environments can create significant pain and challenges for businesses and society. Flexible organizations will realize the news doesn’t have to be all bad, and find ways to adapt and innovate. Revenue potential in most cases will not be ideal. But as we limp along, we can improve our processes and services, and be ready to do business when things return to normal.  This is business as (the new) usual.

There’s a quote from management guru Peter Drucker that we need to keep in mind in times like this: “Spend less time trying to be successful, and more time trying to be useful.” When you are useful, the success will come.


Barry Cross is an assistant professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business and bestselling author of  Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.

Smith School of Business

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Kingston, Ontario
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