The Pandemic as a Trigger for Business Agility

October 16, 2020
6 minute read

The global pandemic of 2020 has forced humanity to be agile in so many ways over the past eight months. Rapid innovation in the way we live, work, and play has been necessary for survival of businesses and people alike, and those changes are now part of our new normal. Understanding the concept of business agility is invaluable in this new era.

It is unlikely life will return to what we once knew, and the fallout will impact us for generations in ways we cannot predict.

However, change doesn’t always need to be a bad thing. It often just needs to be understood and managed. Fortunately, we are currently living within a case study that we can learn from every single day.

A Proven Approach Holds True

Now more than ever I believe it is important for businesses to use a systematic, rapid, iterative approach to survive in today’s dynamic environment.  In other words, to have a chance at success in 2020 a company needs to achieve and maintain business agility more than ever before.

That means using a scientific, empirical, focused approach of identifying and solving problems, but doing it in small, rapid cycles.  For example, using the Observe-Plan-Do-Check-Act (OPDCA) Cycle, Shewhart Cycle, or Deming Cycle in quick learning loops.

Some service industries have been able to use this approach in 2020 to quickly adapt their businesses for survival and in turn improve their business agility.  Many businesses that were able to quickly respond to the pandemic have observed and assessed the rapidly changing environment, built a plan to respond to key issues, took specific action, measured the outcomes of those changes, and then continuously learned and improved.

The Immediate Business Issues

In the early days of the shutdown, restaurants were suddenly thrust into chaos as their core business of serving patrons in house were deemed illegal and dangerous. Brick-and-mortar establishments such as grocery stores, retail supply stores, or home renovation box stores faced a similar problem where their goods were at a physical location that was no longer customer accessible.

Meanwhile, online or virtual stores were thrust into chaos with a different set of problems as they often didn’t have the network capacity, stock, or staff power to respond to such an immediate spike in demand.

Initial Responses Were Shaky

In the spirit of business agility, many restaurants initiated a shift to taking phone-call orders for pick up. Grocery stores put restrictions on the number allowed in a store, sometimes rationed purchase quantities, and prescribed designated pathways within the store that a customer had to follow. These early versions worked but were often awkward, slow, introduced anxiety and uncertainty, and resulted in long queues of waiting customers.

Most businesses were operating at a considerable loss during this phase. However, the ones that were most agile were rapidly learning how to improve their service and revenue stream while reducing risk to their business as well as their customers.

Meanwhile, online retailers worked hard to get and retain stock and set up enhanced distribution networks.  Supply chain issues continued to be troublesome for online retailers, and many times items were simply out of stock for weeks and weeks.  To help with distribution, many hired third-party drivers including, taxis, cabs and even private drivers to deliver goods to private residences instead of businesses.

These are all early examples of business agility in the midst of the pandemic.

Improvements Began to Emerge

Over the weeks that followed, many businesses adapted their business model based on feedback and observations.

To help alleviate queueing and wait times, some businesses added delivery options, scheduled pick-up times, and/or moved their pickup facilities to an easily accessible location. Some restaurants joined existing channels such as Uber Eats or SkipTheDishes, or hired their own drivers. Online retailers had hiring blitzes for drivers and warehouse staff, and increased wages and incentives to attract more staff.

Other service providers began opening by changing their business models.  Warehouse style suppliers that normally serviced commercial enterprises exclusively began retooling their equipment, repackaging their products and services and redirecting their distribution networks to reach the general public. I actually made several “bulk” purchases from restaurant suppliers that were originally intended for commercial consumption.  The price was not cheap, but the volume was good and the quality was very high.

Still more examples of business agility.

Continuing to Improve

Shortly thereafter, businesses either introduced or improved their ordering processes, including taking it online to alleviate the bottleneck of manual ordering over the phone or queued access to service.

Brick and mortar establishments began setting up predefined parking spots with posted phone numbers that customers could call from the comfort of their car when they arrived, reducing risk and wait times in stand-up lines.

Online retailers helped alleviate their stock issues by offering marketplace options where other sellers with similar products could sell their items using the same portal (for a fee, of course).

Surely, the practice of business agility was at play here too.

Actionable Feedback Played a Pivotal Role

In most cases, businesses sought out feedback on the customer experience to help make it better.  Online surveys, follow-up phone calls, and even personalized letters in your packages asking for a few minutes of a customer’s time became commonplace.  The more data a business could gather the better they could identify the key customer pain points and then come up with effective strategies to deal with them.

Despite high levels of anxiety, frustrated customers, and shortened tempers, I believe many businesses learned and adapted very quickly during the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, most businesses have not reached anywhere near the revenue and service level they were able to offer prior to the pandemic. However, the rapid inspect-and-adapt cycles were obvious and have helped many survive through increased business agility.

Unfortunately not all businesses have been able to adapt.  For example, establishments in the pathways and underground shopping malls in downtown areas continue to struggle given their unique constraints such as their physical location underground and the dramatic loss of foot traffic as most people continue to work from home.

What’s Next?

The pandemic is nowhere near over and will continue to impact lifestyles and businesses in ways we cannot predict.

The key to improving the odds of survivability is to use short, focused cycles.  Each cycle should be about observing and learning about current key pain points, planning and taking specific action to remediate or mitigate the issue, measuring if the change has resulted in positive outcomes, and then repeating the cycle.

At BERTEIG we have spent more than 15 years helping individuals and businesses learn about and leverage rapid adaptive change.  We call it Real AgilityTM, and we help you learn and apply these Agile approaches by delivering high-quality hands-on learning events and targeted guidance where appropriate.

Give us a call or send us a message to learn more.  We can offer as light or as focused a response as you feel appropriate.  We’d love to help you and your business not only survive the pandemic but actually thrive during these unprecedented times.

Berteig Consulting

Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.

Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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