What a year of unprecedented health pandemic! Lockdowns, self-isolation, and working from home, with most of us still having to live with restrictions as we come to terms with the normality of the COVID world. However, as the COVID pandemic slowly recedes, rules lift and life gets back to ‘new normal’, now is the time to reflect on what we’ve been through. But not just as individuals, companies have also been hard hit, and despite the suffering, have had to suddenly and swiftly rethink new ways of working, conducting, and maintaining business while keeping employees, suppliers and customers safe.

Ben Bryson, HBK Chief Operating Officer (COO) responsible for Operations, Plants, Supply Chain as well as associated sensors engineering functions, has had to face an inordinate number of challenges not only during the pandemic but also now as we face a future that will never quite be the same again. We spoke to him about the challenges, lessons learnt and the solutions to how we, HBK, can move forward stronger than ever.

Ben, what operational risks have become apparent through this crisis, and how has HBK addressed them?

This crisis has truly emphasized how much we depend on our employees to enable our processes and how much we rely on our supply chain partners. Our teams have done a fantastic job through this pandemic, and all those who work on our products and services have continued to come to the factories or service centres. We implemented risk management strategies, but you cannot avoid all risks. Similarly, our suppliers continued to supply during the crisis. We identified critical risk suppliers in each commodity. Working with these suppliers’ needs, we balanced our demand needs to meet our customer’s expectations. Communicating regularly to our entire organization has been pivotal – putting our welfare first and providing us all with the tools to continue to be successful. I’m the first to confess that we have not always been entirely effective – but we have worked hard, learnt lessons, shared good practices, and continue to be passionate about our people.

What are your thoughts on how the crisis has impacted our supply chain and interactions with our suppliers and what actions have been taken to mitigate those risks?

We have constantly monitored our supply chain partners throughout this crisis – making sure we pay them on time, so they have the cash to support their employees and sending clear and accurate demand signals and working with them to help manage through virus events. However, there have been times when they have had to put their employees first and potentially shut operations. We have endured the crisis through proximity – talking to them regularly, listening to their concerns and implementing strategies that were mutually beneficial. A great example of this has been the work our team in Royston achieved at the end of 2020. The plant delivered three V994 water-cooled shakers, a huge achievement that required a focused and clear plan, lots of hard work, and close collaboration with the supply chain to bring thousands of parts in on time and to the right quality.

What does HBK and its markets look like in a post-COVID-19 world? Anything that has changed permanently? How has the pandemic affected the way your organization operates today, and will it continue to do so in the future?

It is too early to tell. But I’m sure the future won’t be the same as the past. Many of us will adjust the way we work. Collaboration and innovation no longer need to be in an office; the principle of working from anywhere is here to stay. However, we will need to adjust how we inspire our teams. Connecting in 2D can take place around the world 24/7, and our strategy must adjust to succeed in a post-COVID world. Our customers’ needs are also likely to change; their development cycles will continue to accelerate, and their data needs will grow. Our sustainability responsibility and global equality will influence how we grow and inspire. The future shapers of our society and business community will have an opportunity to increase diversity in so many ways. Ethical and social decisions will influence the company’s culture. I believe that our strategy of putting our employees and customers first is the right mindset for HBK.

What actions can we take today to remain competitive under similar or worse scenarios in the future?

Deploy Lean. All day every day. We remove the waste and make ourselves super-efficient. Think about how impactful it would be if all processes were optimized and executed flawlessly, how much more time would you then have to serve the customer or to find other ways to continuously improve. It is so important to embrace a Lean culture, to be comfortable in coaching each other, using data to find problems, using Lean tools to solve them, and that as a high performing team we stretch ourselves to ‘Aim High’. We have a great foundation on which to build our Lean culture. I’m seeing teams embrace this way of thinking and I’m seeing fantastic ideas on where we need to improve for our customers. Lean is the catalyst to ensure our bright future, keep us competitive, inspire us to innovate, and engage our people to own the improvements.

Crisis has afforded us time for reflection – how has the world of HBK changed from your perspective?

We are more open, more flexible, more engaging. We are learning the importance and power of communication and the need to reward and recognize our teams. The virus is a leveller. It has forced us to get close to people and customers. A sense of community has been rebuilt, an ‘in this togetherness’. We should hold onto this more altruistic perspective and grow from here. Sure, we need to deliver shareholder return, but at the same time we can be mindful of our cultural, social, environmental, and ethical footprint. I’ve certainly been more reflective throughout – challenged myself to think differently. I’m more conscious of our future actions and the company we want to have in the long term. Let us not lose the benefits the crisis has brought. There has been tremendous suffering around the world, and we have an opportunity to focus on a positive legacy. Just one area I spend more time on now is mental wellness. In a safety-first culture the unseen mental wellness impacts of COVID-19 must be better understood and supported. I will continue to think about my role in an organization where we gain greater knowledge on mental wellness, remove the stigma, and help to promote preventative practices.