Restarting with Social Distancing - How Lean Manufacturing Can Help



6ft-edit-web.jpgAs manufacturers prepare to return to work in accordance with the current restrictions of social distancing, much assistance can come from implementing common Lean manufacturing practices. To better explain what this might look like in reality, members of The Center’s Lean Six Sigma team, including Anthony Welsh, a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with more than 20 years of experience in both the automotive and consumer products industries, and Chuck Werner, a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with 30 years in manufacturing, held a virtual discussion on this topic with Pete Schmidt, our Business Solutions Manager serving Macomb County and trained Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt, acting as moderator. Read on for highlights from this discussion.

Pete: How do you think COVID-19 will change the way businesses operate?

Chuck: The name of the game in business is still going to be customer satisfaction, but there are two types of customers we need to consider: internal and external. The external customer is the one that pays our bills by purchasing our goods and services.  But in a post-COVID world, we must consider that we as business owners need to provide our internal customers with a safe work environment as well. The definition of “safe” has now changed from simply protecting them from the process to also needing to include a protected environment.  Fortunately, in Lean Manufacturing, we have some best practices and tools that can help ensure the safety of our internal customers and a successful restart of our businesses, while satisfying our external customers.

Pete: In many workplaces, I can see where social distancing could be a big challenge.  Within Lean, is there a change in perspective on how you build and/or manufacture a product that may help with the new social distancing guidelines while reducing cost?

Anthony: One strategy would be to consider going from a push system to a pull system.  A push system relies on forecasting customer demand and having product on-hand in anticipation of future orders, while a pull system releases orders to the factory floor based on orders received from the customer.

Due to Little’s Law, less work in process (WIP) and lead time means throughput will go down, but so will costs.  Utilizing a pull system, we are nimbler and able to meet specific customer demands with shorter lead times, and we have less waste in the factory due to little or no WIP.  And less handling is always better for quality. This is ideal for the small to medium-sized business. Less handling and transportation of WIP and excess inventory also will result in reduced traffic, helping to maintain distance between team members.

Pete: If you are currently using a push system, changing to a pull system may be more of a long-term goal to start planning for.  What can be done to identify possible choke points, or areas within your facility where social distancing may be difficult?

Anthony: One tool to identify physical choke points would be to use a “spaghetti map” to visually represent the flow of people. Start with a top-down layout of the plant or area in question.  If possible, observe the movements or the people in the area.  If the area is closed, you will need to use experienced team members to collect this data, either in person or through electronic sharing of the maps.  It is a good idea to use different colors and line types based on work functions or people/vehicles to capture all functions and use arrows along the lines to indicate direction. This will show where most interactions and crossovers occur.

Pete: How will this process help reduce or eliminate the choke points?

Anthony: The map can get chaotic!  But this is great, since it represents exactly what is happening and now you can visualize it.  Compare the densely populated paths and consider how to reduce areas where traffic is highest and where paths converge.  For example, look for various spots to place personal protective equipment (PPE) stations, supplies and materials.  We don’t want everyone going to only one central location for items they need. With this mapping tool, you are able to play “what-if” games and draw lines on paper before you draw lines on the floor.

Pete: What kind of tools or procedures are there within Lean that can help with social distancing? 

Chuck: The Governor’s order brings up some rather specific requirements that need to be established and maintained for businesses to re-open.  How can good Lean manufacturing practices help them to be effective?  This really breaks down into three categories of Standard Work, 5S and Visual Labeling.

Pete: What in the way of ‘Standard Work’ do you mean?

Chuck: Standard Work can and should be established for some of the requirements, such as the daily screening of employees when arriving and the use of PPE.  PPE used ineffectively can be as much of a hazard as not using PPE at all.  For example, there is a specific set of steps for the removal and disposal of gloves that is designed to prevent the wearer from self-contaminating.  If testing for temperature, ensure the person performing the testing truly understands how to use the device. As part of planning, the company needs to identify what new tasks are going to be performed. They will need to acquire or create good instructions for use (acquiring this from the maker or subject matter expert is best), as well as provide effective training equal to or superior to the training they provide in the creation of their goods and services.  Merely providing the instruction will not be sufficient. Making sure that the associates demonstrate the proper technique is critical to protecting everyone.

Pete: And how can 5S and Visual Labeling be used to help with social distancing?

Chuck: Maintaining proper social distancing is a big part of the requirements.  Spacing out workstations or scheduling arrivals, exits and breaktimes will help, but the company needs to consider the movements of their team members throughout the day.  This is where workplace organization through the use of 5S becomes key.  Unintended interactions between employees are more likely to happen when those associates are forced to operate in a non-standard manner, such as searching for materials, tools or information.  The rules of 5S also should be employed in the establishment of locations to acquire (and dispose of) cleaning materials and PPE. Lastly, visual signs and labeling, as seen in many stores, should be used to make it perfectly clear exactly how the business is to operate.

Pete: What are the final steps that we should do to ensure that we don’t revert back to old habits?

Chuck: Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know, and nobody can ever be 100% sure that things can never go wrong in life, but there are certainly some things we can do to mitigate that risk. 

The first is to look at the plan as designed and use your core team’s subject matter expertise to figure out how we can screw things up.  An approach that works very well is to follow the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) process.  For each step in the process as mapped (as discussed earlier), we simply need to ask ourselves what can go wrong, what would happen if it did, how serious the repercussions of a failure would be and what is the likelihood of the failure being detected immediately.  For those failures with significant impact or very little detection, steps to close those gaps must be taken immediately by the core team.

And, in any new process, AUDIT. AUDIT. AUDIT.  If we don’t go out and check for both understanding and compliance, we can certainly guarantee that the team will gradually return to their old, habitual practices.

Pete: Is there anything else you can think of to help with this transition in workplace practices?

Chuck: Communication!  Every business when surveyed shows a need for improved communication.  And while it is unlikely that all these businesses don’t communicate, now is the perfect time to consider alternative ways to make sure our team knows what is going on and how important their health and safety is to the company.  We cannot always rely on face-to-face communications, which presented failures even before COVID-19.  The tools we discussed here would be just as effective at improving communications.  Map how you cascade communications up and down through the organization, identify the Failure Mode and Effects of communications failures and identify and implement ways to make communications both more effective and more fulfilling throughout the team while eliminating the waste of delays and defects in getting information to those who need it.

To experience the full virtual discussion and presentation, click here.

Lean manufacturing is a great way to improve efficiencies, reduce waste and increase productivities. To learn more about how Lean manufacturing can help your business, click here or contact our experts at


Werner_C2-web.jpgChuck Werner, Manager Operational Excellence/Lean Six Sigma Black Belt
Chuck has been a Lean Program Manager at The Center since 2016. His areas of expertise are in Lean, Six Sigma and Quality. Chuck has devoted many years to practicing Six Sigma methods, ultimately earning a Six Sigma Master Black Belt in 2011. He is passionate about helping small and medium-sized manufacturers become more prosperous using a variety of tools and methods gathered from over 27 years of experience. 


Welsh_Anthony-web.jpgAnthony Welsh, Six Sigma Master Black Belt
Anthony Welsh is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with 20 years of experience delivering projects to both the automotive and consumer products industries. In his role at The Center, Anthony shares expert tools in critical thinking and data-driven decision making to assist clients with using Six Sigma methods to achieve real results.


Schmidt_P-web.jpgPete Schmidt, Business Solutions Manager
Pete Schmidt is a Business Solutions Manager at The Center. Operating directly out of Macomb County, Pete provides services and support to small manufacturers in the region to enable them to compete, grow and prosper. Prior to joining The Center, Pete spent more than five years at AXXO Sales, LLC, as Business Development Manager. There, Pete represented numerous companies and product offerings, helping customers manage business growth.




Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Continuous Improvement, Lean Principles, Workplace Safety