Silver lining for manufacturing and quality programs

Sanmina Corporation’s SVP and CQO, Anca Thompson and VP medical quality and regulatory affairs, Tim McGinnis, explore the pandemic’s influence on quality procedures.

If someone had told manufacturers a few years ago they would have to cope with temporary closure of facilities, travel bans and complex new restrictions once plants were reopened, no one would have believed operations could carry on effectively.

What we actually saw was tremendous resilience, with manufacturers and quality teams successfully navigating their way through new rules, restrictions and PPE requirements. They continued running operations effectively and managed to support demand spikes for essential goods, such as medical products.

There will not be a distinct moment that signals the pandemic’s end and the world returns to normal. However, we can expect a gradual diminishing over time. In the meantime, quality professionals are wasting no time incorporating lessons they have learned to bolster their quality assurance programs. These improvements help them to continue addressing pandemic-related requirements, while also ensuring more cost effective, efficient and flexible operations moving forward.

First line of defense
Sanmina’s ability to respond quickly, pivot and adapt when the pandemic arrived was largely a result of programs and procedures already in place. For example, the business continuity management system was originally developed at a global level so procedures, processes and templates were already established for worldwide distribution. Thus, a set of actions based on risk assessment and recovery were quickly available. A robust quality management system made it easier to address gaps arising from the pandemic, such as adjusted training for new health and safety protocols.

As governments restricted travel, Sanmina already had technology resources in place including cloud-based IT solutions, such as collaboration software and video conferencing, which quickly became the go-to platforms for managing contract reviews and other quality activities.

Internally, the frequency of remote meetings and virtual communications between quality teams increased during the pandemic, so everyone stayed on track. As best practices were shared, new ways to work were discovered. Regular information sharing sessions provided an excellent platform to learn from experiences shared by teams in China, Singapore and Malaysia, then from the West as Covid-19 spread. Inspired by concern for the health and safety of colleagues, families and local communities, we found some of the best methods for social distancing practices came from staff.

Implementing new approaches
We expect to see practices adopted during the pandemic continue thanks to the efficiencies and value they have contributed to quality programs. Four of the most significant new approaches follow:
Employee training and social distancing methods: New health and safety procedures have emerged regarding personal protection and social distancing, including alternative sequencing of production lines, physical separators, PPE, screening methods and additional training for split shifts. These have been incorporated into business continuity plans and are now an integral part of protocols and training methods.

Remote audits: Audits can be performed more efficiently via video and web conferencing, provided IT departments have the right communications equipment and connectivity is assured when broadcasting from remote areas. Audits with regulatory bodies can be completed much faster, regardless of where they take place.

Remote document review: Working remotely requires digital management of contracts and device history records for regulated medical products. More parties and regulatory bodies have experienced the efficiency that digital tools and applications can provide to ensure compliance and adoption is likely to continue after the pandemic.

Virtual tours: Sanmina discovered it can do a better job of showcasing an area, manufacturing tool or methodology when zooming in on things that might have been difficult to show to a large group of people. While there will be times when in-person visits are necessary, customers are enjoying these productive sessions and the subsequent time and cost savings.

Recommendations for optimizing virtual operations
Adapting to a predominantly virtual environment has been arguably the most significant crisis-driven change. Applying some of the lessons learned over the past year can help optimise quality programs in this new remote environment:

More frequent communication: Whether across one or multiple factories, communication is essential. When evaluating potential risks and how to mitigate them, communicating scenarios across teams can help harness the best ideas. Employees are an organizations’ most valuable asset and their collective knowledge and experience can only strengthen quality programs.

Increase in advanced planning: Taking time to plan and organize virtual audits, meetings and tours is critical, helping ensure the experience is productive for customers, prospects and auditors. Forecast and plan around scenarios brought about by the pandemic, such as how to manage preventative equipment maintenance, at a time when suppliers may have limited access. Planning ahead allows time to work through limitations and reset customer expectations.

Updated electronic tools: Expand technology tools and develop programs for remote use so they are optimized, even as travel resumes. Such tools have become the norm for daily operations and adoption will increase.
Revised employee reviews and projects: When planning budgets, projects, objectives, reviews and goals, factor in restricted travel, remote audits, remote meetings and electronic approvals and their impact on deadlines.

Reshaping the way people work
Remote working and virtual practices proved effective during the pandemic and many approaches will remain. Manufacturing industry was headed this way before the pandemic, as organizations embraced technology to streamline processes and minimise errors. Sanmina has benefitted from automation initiatives as it navigated social distancing and abbreviated manpower.

Moving forward, organizations can benefit from what they learned during the pandemic. Evaluating roles and reshaping job functions that can be done just as well, if not better, by working remotely or in rotating shifts will become a best practice. Supported by robust programs and consistent virtual communications, this approach will help manufacturers work smarter and more effectively, while saving significant time and cost.