The Shutdown during the Lockdown
Whether running or keeping a large, daily manufacturing operation like HCCB dormant, it takes a lot of diligence, discipline and determination. Read through the story to get a first-hand feel, as team HCCB weighs in.
The unexpected had happened on March 25, 2020. Beginning that day, India was on a 21-day lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak. (This has now been extended till May 31 through three extensions.)
“We had less than 24 hours to shut down our factories,” recalls G. Ganesh, Manager of HCCB factory at Khurda near Bhubaneswar. “Stoppage of work inside a factory is not simply about switching off some electricity nodes. It entails detailed planning and a careful attention to every process, parameter and equipment,” he adds.
Beverage factories are relatively uncomplicated operations, but there is a huge focus on hygiene and safety of products and people. These factories also have to accommodate for ammonia tanks, carbon dioxide storage, and nitrogen storage. And then there is equipment typical of large factories – conventional or bio-fuel based boilers, chilling stations, cooling rooms, high pressure compressors, fire alarm systems and several electrical points. There are also certain processes, machines and equipment that need to be kept operational like the Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP). Not operating the ETP means the friendly bacteria will not multiply.
On March 25, there was unused syrup, pulp, concentrate and other food ingredients that needed to be taken care of. The short notice to the shutdown meant that factories didn’t have enough time to finish off all the ingredients. Alok Sharma, Executive Director, Supply Chain, explains, “We are a food company and it is incumbent on us to ensure the purity and safety of our beverages. So, the first thing we needed to do was to preserve the ingredients. Since the duration of the lockdown was not a certainty, we had to exercise greater diligence this time. We checked and double-checked.”
The existing stock of beverages inside the factory, planned in anticipation of the seasonal surge in demand, was another challenge. All of them obviously have a shelf life.
Elaborating on the diligence required, B. Raja Sekhar Reddy, Manager of the HCCB factory at Guntur near Vijayawada, says, “Managing a factory shutdown is a routine affair for us. There is a fully laid out procedure. But the challenge here was the immediacy. Also, none of us had ever anticipated that we would have to manage shutdown with practically no manpower.”
“The enormity of the task seemed to have energised everyone. People from across the functions started working remotely to root out even the remotest probability of any untoward event during the lockdown,” says G. S. Raghu, Vice President, Quality, Safety and Environment. “We pooled in our collective wisdom and made it look like a planned shutdown,” he adds.
On the morning of March 25, the work began in right earnest. Emergency Response Teams were activated. Preparedness helped. “The good thing is that we have a set of stringent Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for every process. We therefore did not need to invent anything,” elucidates K. Srinivasa Rao, Manager of the newer of the two factories of HCCB in Bidadi near Bengaluru. By the end of the day, all procedures were completed. The speed was a testimony to the team’s knowledge, skill and temperament.
But the shutting down was just the first step. Greater diligence was required during the lockdown period. For instance, the pressure of ammonia gas inside the tanks, tends to increase when not in operation. If not checked, this could lead to leakages, setting off warning alarms and kicking in emergency response measures at the factory. Similarly, boilers need to be inspected and maintained properly and regularly.
Even the government is cognizant of these supervisory and inspection needs. As a result, within no time, the local governments had approved the passes and protocols for some trained personnel, including operators and electricians at HCCB, to physically monitor and keep reporting. All factories are well-equipped with advanced sensors, safety valves, fire alarm systems, water sprinklers and interlocks at every stage of operation, but heightened manual supervision is always a help. Factory Managers and Safety Leads further tightened monitoring protocols. Those that were to be measured every 8 hours, were now being reported upon every 4 hours. Besides, the experts on all critical processes were put on alert while at home, to be available at short notice in case of any emergency. “We also took permissions for our process leaders to visit the factory and check or run critical equipment for 5 to 10 minutes every week, just to keep them in good condition”, informs S. Sridhar, Manager of the HCCB factory at Goblej, near Ahmedabad.
In the ensuing period, despatch of finished products from the factory also commenced. Beverages are essential supplies and needed to reach the consumers. This reduced the risk of a potential expiry of large volumes of stock at the factory warehouse. Expired products have a very elaborate process of disposal and it can significantly add to the already existing responsibilities.
Recalling the challenges of managing critical operations during the lockdown, Ganesh says, “Our people willingly went that extra mile to do their bit. There is an emotional attachment and there is a sense of responsibility that runs deep in our employees. Personal comforts come much later.”
The Last Frontier
After around 40 days, some factories saw a need to run a shift or two, thereby letting a small, skeletal workforce enter the factory. Starting a largely dormant factory called for extra attention. To be sure, the existing detailed protocol for resuming factory operations was reviewed again in consultations with all the 15 factory managers and functional experts at the headquarters.
“The factory managers would meet everyday to discuss the areas of priority and share best practices. At the factory level, all process leaders were assigned to groups and were asked to inspect their respective areas as per the checklist,” elucidates Raghu.
The best decision we took was to start the factories in a phased manner. Alok confirms. “Our CEO did not allow us to commence production at factories in all the regular shifts, even when we had regulatory approvals. The idea was to go slow, identify the bottlenecks at the early stage and share learnings across the organisation.”
HCCB had also used the lockdown to continuously train employees on quality, safety and supply chain excellence. The training was meant to help employees be ready with resources including precautions to be taken for restarting operations.
When the factories were being restarted, all functional heads including process experts and key operators would be present on the spot. “We just did not want to take any chances,” reiterates Raja Sekhar. “Wherever we started operations, we did so in the presence of all key personnel from across the functions and the ramp up was gradual,” concludes Raghu.
Implementing government guidelines of COVID-19 safety norms was equally important. Emergency assembly points were clearly demarcated with social distancing marks. Colour coding was incorporated for people to stand in earmarked areas only. The sitting positions in the canteens were redesigned in accordance with the statutory social distancing norms. A separate isolation room was allocated in every factory to deal with any eventuality. Besides, every factory designated one of its employees as a COVID-19 champion to exclusively monitor all aspects related to implementation of government guidelines on the subject.
HCCB did not stop at that. It also started its own internal audit of factories once they became operational. It is no surprise that HCCB factories got a lot of appreciation from visiting government officers for conforming to the prescribed guidelines.
As life chugs back to the new normal, HCCB is reviewing key learnings from the experience of managing this shutdown. Alok summarises, “We are exploring options of implementing augmented reality techniques and remote management systems to better control our equipment during such emergencies. Multi skilling of operators is also one of the ways we have learnt to better manage such emergency situations.”
One thing is for sure. There is always something to learn, no matter what the crisis or situation.