Covid-19 spurs a leap to digitalisation - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

By 26 Jul 2020

"The quicker we accept digitalisation, the better it will be for us," says Ashish Pradhan, president for India and Greater China at Siegwerk.

In this Sunday Column conversation, Pradhan lays out a plan to tackle the pandemic from a business point of view

PrintWeek (PW): How have YOU been leading your organisation through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis?

Ashish Pradhan (AP): When the lockdown was first announced it caught us unawares. Since we are part of the essential goods segment, our first action was to obtain the necessary permissions to keep our business running. In the first few weeks, the situation was uncertain and changing rapidly and that required daily monitoring.

PW: How did you manage that?
AP: We kept a close connect with our employees and led by an example; providing decisions and direction to the employees on a real-time basis. Communicating to the larger organisation at every level was also very important and therefore we started weekly forums to keep everybody informed about the latest developments and to keep the morale high.

PW: Describe a typical day? How much has altered?
AP: There were a lot of other challenges to be sorted like incoming logistics, keeping our supplier base operational, helping employees reach the factory and so on. A typical day involved a lot of firefighting by keeping in regular touch with the various teams to guide and advise them. Since the time I have started managing the China business, my hands have been completely full.

PW: Does it continue to be the same?
AP: Now the situation has improved, of course it is not the same as pre-Covid-19, as there are still a lot of issues. Work processes have changed and the level of intensity has reduced as we have settled into a new rhythm and things are slowly getting back to some degree of predictability. Now it is less of firefighting and more of forward planning.

PW: We’re in an extraordinary moment. As a leader what are you telling your team now (120 days since day one of lockdown)?
AP: It is still a rocky period. The three things I tell my team to focus on are safety, customer support and liquidity. For us, the safety of our people is paramount. We must adhere to all the safety norms in place, keep ourselves updated and on top of things so that we don’t expose our people to any inordinate safety risk related to Covid-19. The next important thing is to support our customers to maintain their continuity as a lot of them are still finding it difficult to run their operations. And finally, a big concern point is liquidity where we have to keep a sharp eye on potential issues coming up in the market related to payments. We pay our suppliers and vendors on time and we need to ensure that we get our payments in a timely manner to enable us to continue to do so.

PW: Is it different messaging for different teams? For example, department heads, factory supervisors, admin staff, shopfloor experts, logistics and support staff? 
AP: Apart from the messages that – safety is paramount– and putting customers first, my other main message to all employees is to maintain teamwork. We have to work together to overcome any situation. I talk to my management team on a daily basis, which in turn keeps regular contact with their respective teams, cascading the message down the line. I also talk to the entire organisation directly through my regular Q&A sessions and forums.

PW: The post-Covid-19 world will need massive HR repair with your entire team: how are you planning to achieve this? 
AP: It is a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world we live in, full of uncertainties and things will definitely change. The enduring change in behaviour that we will see is, we will have social distancing as a norm. People will not get together in large numbers so anything to do with it will get impacted. Office spaces and how offices are organised will change.

PW: What impact will it have on the operational costs?
AP: We see an impact on demand and an increase in factor costs with increased sanitisation and maintaining social distancing factor. This raise in costs will have to be managed through other cost control measures. However, the long-term future of packaging and packaging inks is bright so we want to continue to build our talent pool. We are not stopping any recruitment. We have implemented increments and bonus to our employees and paid salaries on time. We want to keep our people happy and so people-related costs will go up.

PW: This doesn’t seem too easy…
AP: Absolutely. The challenge will be to keep people engaged and at the same time come up with innovative solutions to keep our costs down. We see work-from-home as a new norm. Travel will become significantly lesser and we will have to increase our infrastructure related to connectivity, so people can remain connected. There will be fewer team events too, so we have to figure out how to keep people engaged.

PW: Have you been re-negotiating deals with your customers? From a position of strength? Or the same old same old?
AP: We do not want to be opportunistic and take advantage of the situation. So far we have maintained the service levels and absorbed all additional costs associated with supporting customers during this crisis. I feel it is a heightened level of customer support that we are extending. Our customers acknowledge this and have given us several testimonials to appreciate our support. Having said that there is a strong price pressure on some raw material that we use in inks, especially solvents, which we are currently absorbing, for which we may approach our customers at the appropriate time for support.

PW: How have you been planning your next step with your banks and financiers when you don’t know what the future will hold? One step that you have already taken...
AP: Our banks have been supportive and we have been able to manage our working capital relatively well – given the extraordinary circumstances. Most of our customers continue to support us with timely payments by paying on time and we, in turn, pay our suppliers on time.

PW: Is your factory ready for what next? How have you been empowering your team at the bottom of the pyramid? 
AP: That is a very relevant question. There are certain things that we will implement. First, we will implement automation. Second, we will simplify our business processes and the third is empowerment. We are reviewing all our approval processes and we want to reform the entire business process map to ensure that the limits of authority are delegated more and more at the bottom of the pyramid which will ensure agility in decision making and much faster customer service.

PW: Any specific steps (sanitisation, plastic partitions, physical distance, air vents or WFH) to keep your office healthy and psychologically safe?
AP: Siegwerk is committed to the safety of employees, customers and partners. We have implemented extensive measures to keep everyone safe and healthy. Some of the many measures at Siegwerk facilities include, social distancing – enforced without fail – screening and monitoring of everyone regularly, containment plan, disinfection and sanitisation periodically, prevention and awareness, work from home policy, staggered shifts, pick up and drop for employees.

PW: A personal question: How has Covid-19 changed the nature of what YOU are working on, your own resilience and self-renewal and how YOU do it?
AP: What Covid-19 has done is given a chance for people to pause and reflect and I’m no exception. One usually gets so caught up in doing stuff and we don’t give ourselves the necessary time to sit and reflect about how we’ve been leading your life and whether our life is in harmony with our inner self. I have a strict regimen where I start my day early with meditation, jogging, exercising, reading (currently J Krishnamurthy) and writing. That really charges me up for the day. I have been seriously reflecting on how I can make a bigger impact on social causes that are dear to me.

PW: In what way has your team prepared for Webex or Zoom or Skype usage? Any creative ideas?
AP: We operate on Microsoft Teams and we find it a very efficient platform. We have also been conducting training sessions on how employees can use Teams more effectively at the same time; we have encouraged them to improve their wi-fi bandwidth at home.

PW: Any predictions for digital technology during the pandemic?
AP: Digitalisation is a megatrend that has been with us for the last decade especially. The Covid-19 situation has ensured that this has picked up pace and it shall accelerate even more in the future. This means that there will be an immense change in everyone’s life. I was speaking to my daughters - one who is an industrial designer and the other studying to be a bachelor in music - and was amazed to find out that AI today helps in graphic designing and music composition. So, robotics, digitalisation and AI are going to pervade even creative fields, which we thought were outside their purview.

PW: Final thoughts…
AP: Life, as we know, will be disrupted massively and one thing a leader should do is to continuously sensitise his employees to understand that this change is inevitable and equip them to manage this change from an emotional resilience perspective and help them re-skill themselves to be able to adapt to this new way of working.
 

Packaging trends

Q: In the first week of March, I was talking to your ex-colleagues in flexible packaging. They said: it is PE-PE laminate for the detergent vertical while for food packaging BOPP-CPP laminate will become prominent. ... Can we use this period to pre-empt the changes in our society to come out with new product concepts?
A: 
It is a little difficult, in my opinion, because this period is disrupting everyone’s life immensely. The supply chain has been completely disrupted, demand patterns have changed and there is a lot of unpredictability on how things are going to unfold. So right now everyone is more or less on survival mode. I would think that these developments will take a backseat until we reach a certain state of predictability and normalcy. Having said that, there is always a possibility of a breakthrough innovation that comes up and we leapfrog the product evolution lifecycle.

Q: Based on your interactions with the FMCG and food majors which packaging prototypes do you anticipate a boom – and why?  Cartons, sachets and pouches, bags, films and overwrap, tubes and liners?
A: We clearly anticipate sachets and pouches, bags, films and overwraps, to grow robustly. Cartons and tubes will take a backseat and so will pressure sensitive labels. The reason for this is that, this ongoing Covid-19 crisis is going to dent the income of a lot of people forcing them to severely restrict their monthly household budget. The consumption of non-essential luxury goods and liquor will go down. People will move from larger pack sizes to smaller pack sizes because of affordability. All this will drive the growth of flexible packaging more than sheetfed and narrow-web.

Q: Our magazine team turned around 300 pages remotely. That is, WFH. Going forward, is there a solution that can be worked out with brands to boost online packaging applications with customised and virtual solutions? Basically, minimising the need for multiple tests run…
A: 
The crisis is going to push more and more sales online. This will reduce the big costs usually incurred in brand launches, test marketing and distribution. Companies can launch a brand on an online platform with small capital. This would also mean that the order quantity for packaging will go down significantly. Siegwerk has launched a digital solution called Packiroand this is the future for us around the world. This is a new business venture where we will connect the small brand owners and converters and be a bridge by customising packaging applications.

Q: What happens to the debate on single-use plastic now?
A: 
I think it is just a matter of time before it comes back again. It is a fundamental problem which is not going to disappear because of Covid-19 and once we come out of this crisis situation the spotlight will shift back to the circular economy topic and the big topic of single-use plastic and plastic waste. 

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