As businesses restart operations, safety is being prioritized more than ever before.

The gradual lifting of lockdowns has introduced an evolving set of safety measures that may remain in place for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 has impacted every business and individual, as evidenced by work-from-home models and redesigning operations to, unfortunately, in some instances, permanent closures.

Staying afloat will require a thoughtful and flexible approach to how products and services can be delivered while meeting the changing needs of customers, employees, and society at large. In this article, we will look at five basic lean principles organizations can adapt, along with examples of how local businesses across industries have managed to survive and thrive. Whether you are preparing to reopen or are reading this piece post-pandemically, these timeless tips will help ensure your processes continue delivering value, even when the unexpected happens.

The five, evergreen Lean principles that follow are based on:

  • Understanding what value means to your customer
  • Designing processes that flow products and services smoothly to your customer
  • Standardizing work and process cues to ensure consistency
  • Fostering an improvement culture where employees feel safe to share ideas
  • Minimizing waste

In this article, I am going to take a deeper dive into these five principles and show how several very different companies (a manufacturer, a healthcare firm, a recruiting and staffing firm, and a beauty salon) have leveraged them for success in the new normal.


1. Understand the Customer’s Value

Clarify the needs and expectations of your customers and adjust accordingly.

  • Ask yourself: What creates value for my customers? If customer expectations have changed, respond by offering new or modified products and services.
  • In a health crisis, place customer safety first. Use non-verbal signals where possible.
  • Help stakeholders transition and adapt to the “new normal” after a major business interruption. Whichever way “normal” ends up being defined, reflect on how you can help people embrace changes and maintain a positive experience for your customers.

Shortly after COVID-19 hit, San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired, a private, non-profit organization in Texas, received a surge in demand for military uniforms. Mike Gilliam, Lighthouse’s CEO and President, kept up with demand while pivoting part of his operations to produce reusable cloth masks for the community, in partnership with Southwest Research Institute and Jon Hart Design. To further combat the shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE), Lighthouse invested $2.5 million into a PPE Store to distribute various types of PPE to individuals and organizations. Rehabilitation services for the elderly blind were adjusted to a virtual format. 

Florence Medical Group, a Texas healthcare company with headquarters in San Antonio, responded to community needs with a new line of services to help Texas employers reopen safely. Brigitta Glick, CEO and Founder of both Florence Medical Group and Provenir Healthcare, explained, “From screening and tracing to return-to-work post-exposure plans, our new services are delivered by trained healthcare clinicians with our medical board’s oversight.” To meet the needs of its recruitment and staffing customers, Provenir Healthcare now offers virtual services, such as interviewing candidates, as many office personnel, clinicians, and physicians had been furloughed.

Terri Rehkopf, owner of Ippodaro, an all-natural, full-service salon in San Antonio, Texas, used the lockdown imposed on non-essential businesses to rethink operations altogether. Terri recalls, “Before reopening, we communicated frequently with our guests across social media platforms and created live videos to explain the changes in our processes. We didn’t rush into it because we wanted to make sure our team was trained, and our guests understood our safety procedures.”


2. Design Safe Flow

Design the flow of people and processes so that value arrives at your customers expediently and safely. 

  • Analyze the flow of your operations to remove interruptions and keep people safe. (Note: Since reopening guidelines and safety measures may vary by location and industry, it is advised to remain up to date with federal, state, local level, and industry-specific resources.)
  • Make sure that proper process flow is obvious with nonverbal cues and physical barriers. (5S and the spaghetti chart are helpful tools for designing process flow).
  • Determine how to level load demand during periods of fluctuation

Lighthouse has set up a safe production system to accommodate social distancing and hygiene recommendations for manufacturers. With roughly 150 employees, most of whom are vision-impaired, process cues need to be both visual and obvious to the touch. Taped markings serve as tactile indicators for team members to know where to sit and stand throughout the facility (usage of white canes to feel for surroundings is a common practice). To serve employees’ needs, the Lighthouse raised wages by $2 per hour, tripled the number of lunches and breaks, implemented flexible shifts, and provided free daycare for all team members, if needed.

At Ippodaro, guest seating at the entrance has been removed, and ample signage and physical barriers help promote the safe flow of people throughout the salon. Guests and workers are also provided face masks and shields.

Provenir has shifted much of its operations to a remote workforce. Partitions have been added to their previously open-office layout to maintain distancing when employees return to the office. Going forward they plan to not have the entire company in the office at the same time.


3. Standardize the Work

 Design every job or task with safety in mind.

  • Keep standards simple, easy to remember, and up to date.
  • Train with the entire customer and worker experience in mind (A great example of a training tool, the Training Within Industry (TWI) method, used on handwashing can be seen here)
  • Monitor the process to assess adherence to standards.
  • Exhibit careresiliency, empathy, and a clear message of purposeful work to strengthen employee trust and engagement. 

“The Lighthouse is a family with very little turnover – and not congregating goes against their everyday learned behavior,” Mike Gilliam commented, while emphasizing the need to make process changes obvious. Non-verbal process cues are placed at the point of use, so that safe practices are second nature. Contrasting colors and textures differentiate pathways and areas of the facility and hand sanitizing stations are positioned within the line of sight.

With the shift to working remotely, Provenir has had to rely on video conferencing more than ever to refresh existing employees and onboard and train new workers. Brigitta Glick reflects, “Communication has been the key to our success, and this has been reinforced with our remoteness. We realize the importance of over-communication, specific and clear communication, group/team communication, and one-on-one communication. It has been critical to be very actively engaged in video conferencing to pick up on body language to ensure feelings are addressed.”

Lighthouse, Provenir, and Ippodaro have all implemented pre-entry temperature checks as part of their standard operations, in addition to clear practices for cleaning, social distancing, break schedules, and hygiene standards.


4. Encourage Problem Solving, Learning and Improvement

Foster a problem-solving culture that puts the individual at the heart of the improvement activity.

  • Be available and visit workers frequently, to show respect and support them in problem-solving.
  • Use visual management to distinguish normal from abnormal conditions
  • Listen to front-line staff and encourage them to suggest improvements. Ensure transparent communication (both internal and external) and set clear expectations.

The development of return-to-the-office strategies at Provenir was a team effort focusing on the staff’s comfort and concerns. “We were already a family-friendly company with flexible hours, work-from-home options, and on-site childcare, and this experience has greatly encouraged this philosophy,” Brigitta stated.

Terri Rehkopf also brainstormed with her staff at Ippodaro about practices and procedures to use before reopening. She involved her staff to ensure understanding and buy-in into the what, the how, and the why behind new safety measures. 

The San Antonio Lighthouse workforce has been highly engaged in the COVID adjustments, due to a culture that breeds the sharing of new ideas. When the business scaled up PPE production, the “Zorro Mask Team” made up of sewing operators, engineers, and supervisors rose to the challenge. Mike Gilliam added, “Our culture is one of constant executive visibility and accessibility—one of the reasons we walk the production floor at least twice a day—talking to front line team members and listening to their ideas—everything from playing upbeat, faith-based music to kick-off every day to get people’s minds off of the negative vibes the virus has created, to placing tactile tape on the lunchroom tables, so our blind employees could feel where not to sit, to encouraging us to include temporary employees in any bonus payout. When it comes to enhancing the production lines with ideas, that’s commonplace in our operation.” Lighthouse’s culture is further supported through monthly morale-building events and contests and cross-functional working sessions held yearly to gather input on how to make the Lighthouse a better place to work.

“Our culture is one of constant executive visibility and accessibility… When it comes to enhancing the production lines with ideas, that’s commonplace in our operation.” -Mike Gilliam

5. Minimize Waste

  • Look for waste across your organization to enable staff to make quality and safety decisions.
  • Ask yourself how people and resources can meet demand with minimal leftover. 
  • Find ways to reduce the complexity of work, products, and services.

Removing waste to minimize costs is intentionally placed last, as Lean thinkers believe financial success is achieved through providing value to customers and caring for your staff.

Lighthouse’s startup of PPE production was done using existing people and capabilities, repurposing underutilized production lines.

By dramatically increasing work from home flexibility, Provenir has proven it can operate successfully in a remote fashion, allowing the company to reduce its office footprint and associated expenses by half.

By researching the actual consumption rate of supplies, the team at Ippodaro reduced excess inventory costs and shifted mindsets by asking questions like, “What is the demand? Do we really need overstock on this product?”


Parting Words

When asked what advice they would give other businesses looking to reopen, here is how our local businesses responded:

Brigitta Glick (Provenir Healthcare and Florence Medical Group):

“Have a plan. Understand the recommendations and requirements to run operations safely. We have the benefit of our medical board advising us on re-opening strategies and understanding CDC guidelines as well as helping us procure PPE. Every organization operates differently, and it is critical to have a plan that works specifically for each employers’ unique needs.”

Terri Rehkopf (Ippodaro):

“Take precautions to make sure your team is all on the same page and show your new processes to your guests across communication platforms. This will help build trust and your guests will appreciate the time you are taking to ensure they are safe. Plan for a rainy day, especially if a shutdown happens again in the winter months.”

Mike Gilliam (Lighthouse):

“Over-communicate your plans and the supporting reasoning with all team members—and get input and buy-in from your Senior Team before implementing. Consistency, understanding, and buy-in are key. Also, do it gradually and conservatively. The end of June is a fair target for some semblance of normalcy. Those who attempt to rush it will meet with skepticism and concern.”

Ultimately, a sustainable operating model is needed. To prepare for the unexpected and adjust to the ever-changing world, rethink value in the eyes of your customer, review and improve your processes, take care of your people, and envision what you want your organization to look like in the future. Review your strategy and devise a new plan to execute it.

To the reader: This article was written in June of 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, after the US economy started lifting lockdown restrictions. Since then, circumstances may have changed. As reopening guidelines and safety measures may vary by location and industry, with many being moving target, it is advised to remain up to date with federal, state, local, and industry-specific resources.

Click here to download a PDF of the below infographical summary of this article.


#leanthinking #business #leadership #lean #leansixsigma #continuousimprovement

About the author

Monica Hayes

Monica C. Hayes is an entrepreneur, engineer, and coach. She enjoys writing about leadership, process improvement and personal development. When not helping companies fix their processes, Monica can be found running, reading, or cooking. Monica can be reached at

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