Over the past few months, there has been an uptick in articles and webinars proposing that businesses can navigate the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic by developing greater resilience – but is resilience the right word?
Based on my manufacturing experience in the automotive industry, I believe businesses need to instead focus more on building robust systems.
To understand why, consider this sign: “297 Days Without a Lost Time Accident.” Great job, you might be thinking, but what’s guaranteeing an accident will not happen on day 298? This is the essence of the robustness mindset: system preparedness for any kind of disruption or non-compliance in the future.
Since the pandemic, words like robustness, resiliency, and agility have become more common in crisis management programs, while their definitions have become less clear. These terms are not interchangeable, but they aren’t mutually exclusive either. Below, we define each concept and show how the end goal of robustness is reinforced by resiliency and agility.
Robustness refers to strength and effectiveness, even in adverse conditions. The more robust a product is, the less its performance is affected by disruptions or input changes, because such changes have been predicted and contingency plans have been developed and built into the product. Obviously type and magnitude of disruptions will vary, but the guiding philosophy remains the same. Developers and designers build robustness into products and processes proactively, to ensure continuous improvement of performance from the very beginning.
The table below shows industry examples of robustness, and the corresponding performance effects.
Companies are increasingly vulnerable to high-impact and low-probability events. The problem is that many companies leave critical risk-management and business-continuity functions to staff and only check in periodically. Without a rigorous process to continuously monitor for threats, staff end up constantly fighting fires – which can flare up anywhere throughout the system – rather than preventing them.
Proactive risk mitigation requires a culture of trust, as well as structure, insight, and collaboration throughout the entire organization. Such an approach embodies robustness because it emphasizes continuous learning and improvement to better prepare the organization for future events.
The pandemic has emphasized the value of robustness. Some countries responded better or faster than others. Those that had recently experienced an outbreak, for example, quickly adopted safety measures like wearing masks, using non-contract greetings, and practicing social distancing, which helped them manage the spread of the virus. Although responses weren’t perfect (the pandemic still spread), these areas were better prepared to handle the health crisis because they used their experience addressing past events to build stronger incident responses for the future. It would be unwise to think that events like current pandemic or impending climate change are black swans. They are not!
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after disruption. Unlike robustness, which is proactive, resilience is reactive, following incidents in which system performance has already been affected. Resiliency is measured in terms of the time a system takes to recover to its original state of performance or better. A sustained or substantial impact, however, can prevent a system from returning to its original state.
Consider the reaction column of a control plan. This column documents practices like alert maintenance and part segregation, but root-cause analysis is not performed until later, through gemba sessions, often resulting in stagnant monthly yields. With resilient operations, an organization reduces the time needed to resolve non-conformances in system so it can bounce back faster.
But the impacts of the pandemic have been both significant and sustained. Business performance has plummeted for months due to the lockdowns. Whether it can return to original levels remains uncertain. Organizations with robust systems may have a better chance of recovery because the impacts they sustained were likely less significant.
Agility is the ability to adapt and implement changes quickly. These changes are often driven by external factors (regulations, customers, technology, mergers and acquisitions) or internal ones (initiatives to innovate, drive new products and services, gain competitive advantage). An enterprise’s agility needs to be balanced so that the system is stable enough to accommodate changes, otherwise it risks creating unnecessary waste, variation, or stressors in system.
In the case of pandemic response, agile organizations likely incorporated new safety measures or ways of working faster than less agile companies, making them more likely to bounce back from disruptions – more resilient.
To adequately prepare for the future, business leaders need strong and balanced approaches, which means prioritizing robustness. Robust systems are resilient systems, but not the other way around. Agility is an essential element of robustness, and should be built into every system so the organization can quickly orchestrate any necessary changes. As an example, knowing the risks of pandemic-type events, companies should have been easily able to deploy remote working arrangements for their employees.
Business leaders can also make digital transformations more sustainable and scalable by promoting a robust mindset in the workforce. Hands-on domain experience, a solid understanding of change-management practices, and digital expertise will bridge the large gap between business and technology. Practical strategies that simplify, clarify, and help people focus towards reaching the vision is the need of the hour.
Director, Engineering Consulting, Industry 4.0 in the Industrial and Engineering Services, Wipro
Girish Datar is Director, Engineering Consulting, Industry 4.0 in the Industrial and Engineering Services in Wipro. He has been with Wipro for about 6 years starting with smart manufacturing practice. He is a seasoned manufacturing professional with 20 years of global experience with Fortune 500 companies such as ABB, AlliedSignal, Flextronics. He brings a unique blend of manufacturing physics, transformational change process and right sizing of digital technologies to democratize digital and accelerate business impact. He is certified CPIM, PMP, Six Sigma BB, and Harada system for transformational change.