As any crisis fades, it’s important to capture what was learned before it’s forgotten. We need to recall surprises, reflect on how they were successfully dealt with, and think about managing what comes next. While the world is not out of the woods of the pandemic yet, companies are beginning to restart operations, transform businesses, and rightsize for a weaker world. At a recent IMA Asia CEO Forum, members discussed the unexpected surprises, the challenges they faced, and the lessons learned from the crisis.
Dealing with surprises
The scale of the Covid-19 pandemic upended the plans of large and small firms alike. Reflecting back, one CEO said,
‘The big surprise was the speed with which this thing unfolded. We had a business continuity plan, but obviously the response for a pandemic wasn’t the same as for tsunamis, fires and earthquakes. We really had to work very quickly.’
In fact, the pandemic did not impact all firms alike. The diverse demands of customers whipsawed those companies with a multi-product portfolio. A CEO of a firm with a diverse portfolio of products and customers commented,
‘Our sales of health care products increased five to 10-fold, which put a massive strain on our supply chain end-to-end; we couldn’t catch up. Yet, sales of other products ground to a halt. Some customers wanted continued support in a safe manner, while others didn’t want to see us at all. Managing those variables was a big strain.’
Coping with lockdown challenges
In the past four months, senior executives have had to address a diverse range of issues stemming from the pandemic. Among the most challenging:
The risk of long-term loss of employees and customers. Efforts to cut costs through staff retrenchment and cutbacks in service and product offerings could have long-term consequences in loss of customers and difficulty rehiring staff once the crisis has passed. As one executive remarked,
‘Suspending activities and release of staff in APAC could delay recovery by years as relationships are cut off.’
Restarting operations while keeping employees healthy. China has been the first to allow a reopening of manufacturing facilities, but companies needed to jump through hoops to make it happen. An IMA Asia member shared his own experience.
‘Our biggest problem in restarting China was convincing the government that we could provide a safe working environment for returning workers. This required us to set up a testing regime, arrange for nurses and counsellors, establish a quarantined building, and put in place new working routines in the factory and offices.’
While the experience with a quick restart in China has been generally positive, some executives are concerned with what they will face when they reopen in other major markets. A concerned CEO said to the IMA group,
‘The China experience is a walk in the park compared to the challenges we are facing in places like India, and now even the US. Neither will have a fast recovery path like China.’
Learning from the pandemic
The pandemic has revealed some useful pointers when dealing with a crisis. IMA Asia members concurred on a series of lessons learned from the experience.
- Act quickly. Those that acted quickly in the early phases of the spread of covid-19 came out better off than those that delayed their response.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic increased anxiety among employees. Constant and transparent communications have become essential to reassure employees that their employer ‘has their back’.
- Learn from China. China has led the way both into, and out of, the pandemic. For many firms, their experience in China has offered a roadmap for the rest of the world.
- Diversify your supply chain. The rapid shutdown of manufacturing in China in early February put enormous pressure on supply chains globally. Now, many executives are convinced that they need to increase inventories and diversify their sources of supply.
Click on ‘Deep Read’ at the top of the page to learn more about how senior executives in Asia have been managing the Covid-19 crisis and the return to work.