Chances are we’ve all benefited from one of those ideation sessions in which teams collaborate through a process that includes walls of big sheets of paper or whiteboards containing clusters of sticky notes. It can be a remarkable experience to behold how our consultants have mastered this technique.

One of the best among them is David Ahlquist, a business growth consultant who helps manufacturing companies build cultures of continuous improvement that contribute to overall operational excellence. David uses his expertise in lean enterprise, lean product development, and quality management systems to help manufacturers boost their company’s productivity. But the constraints of the COVID-19 economy have forced him–and all of our consultants–to adapt to a changing environment, to zig where they used to zag.

Last March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of business as we know it, the management team at Western Spring summoned David to their Hugo-based plant to help integrate a new robotic arm that they hoped would transform their operation. They knew they needed to upgrade the software, so the business systems and scheduling protocols would keep the machine busy.

This is David’s sweet spot. He assembled a cross-functional team representing all the areas of the company that were going to be touching this. It included four members who worked on the shop floor, someone from receiving, and someone else who pulled materials for jobs. From the office, he included the production manager, the engineer, the salesman, and then also the office support who did a lot of the purchasing.

After using an in-person session to fashion the “current state” of his value stream map, COVID-19 changed everything. He would conduct the next three six-hour sessions virtually. For that, he turned to a virtual whiteboard computer program called Mural.

Mural is an online visual collaboration space that substitutes for those in-company walls. People can map all sorts of content. The program operates on a monitor but can accommodate a vast amount of material, all while enabling people to work from their desks in a variety of locations. (I encourage you to test it out on YouTube.)

Using a very intuitive format, David leads them through a process in which participants can drag and drop elements intuitively. Almost as if they are in the same room, they can share documents, pictures, shapes, and icons. They can even upload files, links, and videos directly from their computer or the cloud. Items in a Word document will transform instantly into discrete sticky notes.

David admits that the meeting constraints imposed by COVID-19 have limited some of the personal in-company experiences, especially when analyzing the “current state” of a company. The next step—the action plan—is easier to do remotely, he says.

Working remotely still has some shortcomings, even with Mural, David says. “We miss their personal reactions. We need to keep them engaged. We need to break more often. We don’t like to go more than an hour without letting people get up and stretch their legs.”

That said, Mural has worked out so well that David is even thinking about incorporating Mural into his post-COVID work plans. It can accommodate sessions when scheduling is difficult, travel is a problem, or when people need to participate from separate offices.

Southwest Initiative Foundation

Events Calendar

July 7 – Strategically Navigating an Uncertain Future
Steve Haarstad, a strategy expert, will share how to develop a good strategy that will shift the odds of business success in your favor. Online via Zoom. Learn more and register

July 14 – Driving Continuous Improvement in Uncertain Times
David Ahlquist, a skillful continuous improvement expert, will show you how leveraging CI, particularly during COVID-19, can help you respond, adapt and emerge a stronger business. Online via Zoom Learn more and register

July 23 – Investing in Your People to Create Leaders at All Levels
Abbey Hellickson, a seasoned talent and leadership expert, will show you how solid leaders create environments that can adapt to change, foster innovation and solve problems. Online via Zoom Learn more and register

July 30 – Are Your Leaders On Board?
Join talent and leadership expert Michele Neale as she shares how to guide teams successfully through change, improve company culture and maximize productivity. Online via Zoom Learn more and register

Industry News

Beauty brand Aveda activates solar array at Minnesota HQ
Aveda’s manufacturing facility in Blaine, MN has activated a 3.6 acre, 900kW solar array, offsetting 1,100 metric tons of CO2 annually. July 1, BeautyPackaging.com  Read more

Felling Trailers adds two-cell gantry robot
Sauk Centre-based Felling adds new robotic welding capabilities to increase production and efficiencies. July 1, Trailer-Bodybuilders.com  Read more

DEED announces partnership with Coursera for online courses
DEED is providing free access to educational courses for Minnesotans that have applied for unemployment insurance in 2020. June 26, Albert Lea Tribune  Read more

Edina glass maker Apogee ekes out quarterly profit despite setbacks
The high tech glass manufacturer navigated a variety of economic and COVID-related setbacks, and was able to post a first-quarter profit. June 26, Star Tribune Read more

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