How to Boost Organizational Productivity during Crisis Times

Wartime and plaques, or pandemic diseases, constitute the most acute type of human crises, stretching resources and testing our limits. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, I hope you benefit from a retrospective look at how others in the past have coped.

The year was 1918, and two major crises were going on at the same time. The US was ramping up the deployment of troops into World War I by an order of 10X magnitude, and the influenza, or “Spanish flu,” pandemic broke. Almost immediately, an acute shortage of key human and material resources arose. Vast amounts of guns, ammunition, food, transport equipment, medical supplies, and trained nurses and soldiers were needed, stretching the nation’s limits to the breaking point. The capability of Americans to continue delivering them was stretched thin too.

The problems are eerily similar to what we are experiencing during this COVID-19 pandemic. Parts of the country are experiencing a limited supply of hospital beds, masks, ventilators, and emergency equipment. Water and toilet paper are in demand, most major cities are locked down, and families have been asked to quarantine themselves. We are using cold storage rooms as morgues. We are experiencing limited access to shops, and the president has referred to our current state as a “war” against an “invisible enemy.” During times like this, it can be hard to be productive. To be helpful, I’ve compiled three of nine lessons I’ll deliver throughout three installments. Consider applying them to keep organizational productivity as high as possible throughout the current crisis.

1–Determine and Decompose Critical End-to-End Processes

Processes, which are the way we do work in organizations to deliver value to customers, are not all equal. The value an organization delivers to its stakeholders or end customers is delivered through different processes performed by a single individual or machine, a functional area (department), a division, several functional areas, or across several organizations, depending on the depth of the process architecture or hierarchy with which we are dealing.

However, in times of crisis, not all processes are equally relevant to achieving the pressing objectives at hand. Discerning leaders focus scarce time and resources to maximize outcomes from a few critical processes. For instance, in a restaurant, high-level processes include receiving orders, making food, serving food, and receiving money for the food. During this COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants in the US have boiled down their operations to receiving orders, making food, and receiving money for the food, with no dine-in option allowed.  Some other service organizations, like Best Buy, only allow for online ordering and curbside pickup.

In times of war or crisis, only essential operations are allocated time and resources, which can mean we need to make tough decisions. During wartime, laws like the Defense Production Act force prioritization of manufacturing capacity to military production only.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the debate continues as to whether car manufacturers should switch to ventilator production or prioritize their mask-making capacity for health-care workers. Ultimately, forced prioritizations of capacity and capability allocation must be made, and the timeliness of those decisions makes the difference in casualty rates.

After deciding where to focus productive capabilities (and by default, where not to), the next task is to clearly communicate what to do and why and how to do it through process decomposition and documentation. In the popular “Training Within Industries, TWI” program created for the rapid and efficient World War II–training of largely female workers to backfill millions of factory positions for workers who had gone off to war, one of the first priorities was to “break down the job” in order to instruct. This training program was loosely derived from the lessons learned from World War I, which ended in 1919, the same year Charles R. Allen published his book for training shipbuilding workers, The Instructor, the Man and the Job: a Hand Book for Instructors of Industrial and Vocational Subjects (1919).  Decomposing or breaking down work processes helps stakeholders to see what it actually takes to deliver customer value, as well as to provide fundamental understanding to help decide what to eliminate in times of crisis without sacrificing customer outcomes.

For illustration purposes, most people on earth would agree that “Keeping the Lights On” is an essential productive endeavor. Therefore, the electric (or gas) utility industry, whose primary processes include “Generating Electricity,” “Connecting Users to the Grid,” “Maintaining Grid Connectivity,” and “Getting Paid,” would be prioritized as critical. However, to further break down or decompose these high-level processes and determine what parts are critical in a crisis, you could further decompose the “Getting Paid” end-to-end process (which is called “Meter-to-Cash” in the industry) as follows:

In the example above, the “Getting Paid” (or “Meter-to-Cash”) end-to-end process would be our Level 1 process; the “Perform Billing” process would be one of the Level 2 processes, and “Create Bill Batches” would be one of the Level 3 processes (better known as activities or procedures).

2–Document Standardized Critical Processes

Once the critical processes have been determined at the second and third level of decomposition, as illustrated above, the next stage is to document these critical processes. The best-known method available for performing the process steps at the time of documentation should be captured. This information is typically gathered from the current process SMEs, old process documents, observation, system logs/data, etc. There is often variation between prior documentation and what is currently observed or what is practiced from one process worker to another. Efforts should be made to reconcile these process differences using objective criteria such as measured output or outcomes of the different process variants. The process determines the output/outcomes, so standardization is crucial for the consistent delivery of desired outcomes, especially for critical processes.

A standard format for documentation of the process information should be chosen for ease of use/consumption. The most common tools used, in my experience, are found in Microsoft Office 365 and include MS Word and Visio. Though they are now cloud-based and easy to use as starting points, the documents tend to quickly become obsolete as they are more static in nature. Other more recent cloud-based tools such as Microsoft Flow (now Power Automate), IBM BlueworksLive, Nintex Promapp and FlowForma, etc. tend to have better knowledge management/process repository building capabilities, including version control, linking, referencing and auto-updating-related processes, metadata extraction across processes, and even process automation.

In World War II, TWI training documents, such as the “Job Breakdown Sheet,” were templates created by the instructor at the most granular level with a three-column format and words explaining each step, often accompanied with pictures/images, and highlighted “Key Points” (now called the “Standards”). If a specific piece of equipment or certain method must be used in a specific way to achieve quality results, it must be documented as a “standard.” For instance, a patient must not be given water less than 100°F. An example of a TWI document (slightly modified template) for the “Create Bill Batches” process discussed above is shown in the image belowSuch documents were used during the war and subsequently, in other countries like Japan, to instruct the trainee, allowing for the rapid, error-free transfer of knowledge. The training was often done at the worksite, and copies of the documents were left there. Today, a good practice is to have printed out “Desktop Procedures,” which is handy or readily accessible to process workers on a computer screen at the work site, regardless if it is a service, knowledge work, or manufacturing process.

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3-Cross Train Critical Processes

In crisis or wartime, organizations are forced to do more with less over a compressed timeframe. With a constant need for replenishment due to exhaustion or expiry, organizations are forced to rapidly refresh capabilities if they are to maintain capacity, whether this involves deploying tanks or trained healthcare workers. In this context, capabilities means enough skilled people (or systems) prepared and able to perform critical tasks within the organization. Capacity refers to the current rate of delivery of desired outcomes. Essentially, this means the capacity to deliver outputs and/or outcomes at the volume demanded within the required timeframe/compressed schedule.

In order to maintain capacity in an escalating crisis, there has to be a mechanism to rapidly train, deploy, and replenish people (or systems) and enough volume to meet the increasing demand. There is often a scarcity of such skilled people, or the available ones are burnt-out and must be replaced. During the 1919 war and flu pandemic, the need for nurses was so great that Illinois passed a bill to create a one-year abridged course for practical nursing in an effort to address the nursing shortage the pandemic had exposed. This is often a good first step for critical processes or steps within a process; a review should be made to see steps that can be eliminated to fast track training without significant degradation of quality outcomes in order to relieve the capacity constraints. These methods are just as effective today. I have used such techniques in my practice to redesign call center operations and halve the training period for new associates.

In World War II, the TWI training program was an effective “Rapid Skill Transfer” mechanism to meet the capacity demands of the time. In particular, the Job Instruction (JI) training showed an instructor how to bring the trainee “up to speed” in a manner that ensured rapid proficiency (faulty rifles cost lives). An image of the original instructor’s card appears in the image below. In a nutshell, it emphasized proficiency, not just instruction and practice. The instructor had to train, observe performance, reinforce learning, and gradually “taper off” coaching until “you know he knows.” That certainty or certification piece is sometimes missing in modern work-based training. There is a vast difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it with proficiency in a real-life situation, let alone in a crisis. I acknowledge that such rigor may only be needed for critical tasks in a process essential to “keeping the lights on” or saving lives, but these assessments need to be made and applied no matter what business you’re in.

TWI JI Training within Industry Job Instructions Card. Public Domain. Original attributions can be found here.

Once critical processes have been determined, documented, and process workers have been cross-trained to ensure redundancy of critical capabilities, an excellent way to keep an eye on the capability (and hence capacity) of your organization or team is to create a skills matrix (see image below). This is most effective when it is made visible to all stakeholders and kept up to date. At a glance, it tells you who is available to backfill for specific roles/capabilities and how “deep your bench is” in terms of your reserve capacity. For instance, in our electric utility example, if there are many substations and individual outages during a storm, with tens of thousands of customers without power, and the dispatch team has to assign crews to restore power while critical skills for performing complex tasks are left uncommunicated or undefined, then expediting the substitution of crew members and the dispatch of crews is much harder to execute. The lights stay off much longer than they would if clearly defined substitutions were in place.

In a crisis such as the one we face now, where the consequences of faulty ventilators or missing masks can mean life or death, it is critical to optimally manage capacity and capabilities by determining critical processes, documenting them in a standardized way, and cross-training enough employees for adequate coverage. In the articles to come, I will discuss three more principles that pertain more to service/knowledge work and three that are more related to manufacturing productivity. Stay tuned.


Akinbode Isaacs, PhD: “Empowering organizations to perfect end-to-end processes for peak performance”

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