Pivoting in a Crisis is Always a Gamble, Data-Driven Decision-Making Helps Even the Odds

A software program developed in State College, Pennsylvania shares how COVID-19 changed them.

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As the repercussions of COVID-19 have drastically changed the way we conduct business, the brightest minds in quality improvement, R&D and engineering that we are honored to have as customers are also facing a variety of challenges none of us were betting on.

At Minitab, we have helped companies contain costs, enhance product and service quality and boost customer satisfaction for nearly 50 years. And when the pandemic hit, one of our first thoughts was how we could continue to help our clients use their data and our software together to help them make the best, most informed decisions for their business in these uncertain times.

Moving Training Online

Our software trainers, who are experts at data analysis software and statisticians in their own right, pride themselves on traveling to various companies around the world to show people how to use Minitab Statistical Software to organize their data and quickly run statistical analyses, visualize data and determine key metrics. While many data analysis programs require data scientists to write lines and lines of code to address common issues – like how to change a production process to ensure as many parts as possible come off the line without defects – Minitab’s intuitive user interface helps anyone find their answers with a few clicks.

But then we found ourselves in a position where public training courses were just not an option. For the health and safety of us and our customers, we moved our training courses online. Customers could learn the same statistical tools we normally teach in person and take advantage of live trainers available to answer questions throughout.

The Power of Data for the Greater Good

While we were figuring out the logistics of online training, the COVID news cycle was certainly not stopping. So we studied production line changes in the news – from auto manufacturers making masks and respirators to distilleries, breweries and perfume factories making hand sanitizer. Knowing that the quality managers and engineers who use our software were likely mobilizing to understand how to change their production lines as well, we set out to provide them complimentary, easy-to-understand and timely content they could use.

1. Meeting Demand for Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)

Why were hospitals desperately in need of N95 respirators? Because those respirators met safety standards that were critical to preventing transmission of the new coronavirus. In order to label it an N95 respirator, it needs to have these factors meet the appropriate specifications as defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM):

  • Bacteria Filtration Efficiency
  • Particle Filtration Efficiency
  • Breathing Resistance
  • Splash Resistance
  • Flammability

This means manufacturers must have acceptable levels of fabric density in multiple layers of the respirator. Unfortunately, many manufacturers began production without the proper planning and manufacturing processes creating masks that didn’t meet proper standards. We shared how a simple designed experiment can put respirator prototypes to the test and demonstrate how to optimize the production process to make sure they meet the ASTM standards.

2. How Are the Liquor and Beauty Industries Getting into Hand Sanitizer?

How about the shortage of alcohol-based hand sanitizers we saw at the beginning of the pandemic? Companies that regularly make beer, gin or perfume were stepping in to make hand sanitizer. But where did they start?

We studied temporary guidelines the FDA released. Key among them was verifying a hand sanitizer has the right amounts of the following ingredients:

  • Ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.
  • Glycerol.
  • Hydrogen peroxide.
  • Sterile distilled water or boiled cold water.

Minitab demonstrated how a mixture design experiment can help find the correct formulation and proportions of each ingredient to create a hand sanitizer that meets the FDA specifications.  This was critical in helping thousands ramp up manufacturing of this much needed commodity.

3. Dealing with the Bullwhip Effect in the Supply Chain

Now that we had examined a couple different scenarios in which swift changes could be confidently made to pivot production lines, it was time to take a look at the supply chain overall. With a spike in demand for certain products like toilet paper and canned soup, we wanted to help engineers adjust for the bullwhip effect, the phenomenon that occurs in multi-level supply chains where orders at the end of the supply chain, close to the customer, are amplified with each additional supply chain actor.

You can’t control the supply chain, but you can use statistical process control to help take preventative and emergency measures. Control charts can help monitor if you are producing an appropriate number of units for the number that you are selling.  Minitab is helping companies cope with the bullwhip effect – and equally importantly – plan and predict the next one to mitigate costs and prepare for the reopening of the economy.