When the virus was first in the headlines, we didn’t know how it spread, what the incubation period was, or how virile and veracious it was. Faced with many of these unknowns but understanding the potential for huge loss of life, America’s Coronavirus Task Force focused on fundamentals. They asked us to social distance, limit travel, not gather in large groups, wash our hands often, and not touch our mouth or face.    

New data is now beginning to show that fundamental changes Americans have made to their behavior in the last month are having a significant impact on “flattening the curve” of the virus. This lowered trajectory means tens of thousands of lives saved. 

Fairly simple concepts that, when followed, resulted in a huge positive change to the overall prediction of loss of life. Yes, technology will soon enable readily available quick tests, effective treatments, and maybe even a vaccine. But in the short term, it was people modifying their behavior in fundamental ways appears to have flattened the curve significantly.  As my friend tells me “When you are fighting an unknown enemy, focus on fundamentals.” 

This article is not comparing the importance of a headline issue (the coronavirus pandemic) to that of industrial productivity. Rather it draws parallels to important lessons about human behavior and how groups of people judge risk, prioritize values, and modify actions. Americans’ adherence to the social distancing guidelines for combatting COVID-19 were spurred on by a severe threat to human life and, yes, fear. Productivity issues in America’s industrial plants are also a severe threat to ongoing competitiveness and long-term business survival, even more so now that distancing is an issue.  

We know the fundamentals on which to focus. Most studies have historically shown the average industrial “time on tools” rate to be less than 50 percent. This means actual work done in an eight hour shift is less than four hours. Other administrative and procedural requirements take up the remaining time. Many of procedures, such as safety-related work planning and preparation are obviously needed. However, other activities – such as time spent looking for materials or locating a co-worker – are just time-sinks. 

Connected worker programs involve a change for workers who participate. But fear doesn’t need to be the motivation to change. Relating competitive risk, quality of job experience, and work satisfaction helps workers understand that change will improve the productivity scourge they are fighting in their plant (low time on tools, inefficient work execution, lack of situational awareness). The benefits of having basic connected worker information (location, time on tools or time in work zone, two-way communication, etc.) will provide significant benefits right out of the gate. As years of connected worker data is sorted, processed, and assessed, the information will yield ever greater and more important results. But the fundamental change represented by workers initially wearing the connected worker device will remain as the most important step taken in the productivity war.