How Do You Quickly Pivot During a Crisis?

When you think of an aircraft carrier, you tend to think of them as slow-moving, unwieldy vessels that are best suited to going in a straight line and needing half a day just to execute a turn.

But you would be wrong! A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier can make a 180-degree turn in a matter of a few minutes. (Check out the video of the USS Abraham Lincoln make some hairpin turns in the middle of the ocean.)

Of course, when making these turns, the ship heels quite a bit and I imagine there’s a lot going on inside as everything rolls, slides, and flies to one side of the ship, which means everything had to be prepared, secured, battened down, and made ready for those maneuvers.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of companies close down and put their employees on furlough. It’s understandable, because either their customers aren’t buying what they’re selling, or their sellers aren’t providing the raw materials they need.

But other companies are not only still operating, they’re thriving. These are companies that were able to pivot from their normal operations and are producing something new that still fits within their abilities and expertise.

The USS America. An aircraft carrier can pivot and make 180 degree turns in minutes.
The USS America.
They began to pivot and change their scope of operation, but to do it, they needed everyone in the operation to prepare, secure, batten down, and make ready their own areas of responsibility so they and the company could be successful.

For example, anyone who works in the fashion industry making dresses and shirts could easily pivot within a few days and begin making face masks and hospital gowns for medical professionals and first responders. The technology and the abilities are the same, but the designs are different. And even if they have never made hospital gowns or face masks before, there are designs and patterns online, and they already know how to sew and have sewing machines.

But companies like Ford, GM, and Tesla — the aircraft carriers of the automotive industry — have pivoted in a more complex way. GM recently brought back some employees back to work in their Kokomo, Indiana factory and began making ventilators for hospitals to use on COVID-19 patients who need breathing assistance.

It’s actually not that difficult to pivot if you’re a large company with vast resources. As recently said:

Car companies have large factories, mass production experience, and connections to supply chains needed for the hundreds of parts that go into a ventilator. But repurposing a car factory to make a medical device as complex as a ventilator isn’t easy.

To make the ventilators, GM is making a stripped-down version of Ventec’s existing VOCSN ventilator, called the V+Pro, and producing it with fewer parts and a shorter production time. They also include the features that critically ill patients will need, but they’re cheaper and easier to use.

Even so, a ventilator is a sophisticated piece of equipment, which means Ventec would have needed to open up their databases to provide all the specs on their components, the types of metals needed, the types of machining each component needs, and the type of programming needed for the system to run. An effort like this would take a team of engineers who are dedicated to learning the system and executing. Not everyone has that capability, which is why it’s Ford, GM, and Tesla who are able to step up and make it happen.

They have access to a vendor base that could already make those components with some retooling and planning. Those vendors likely already have access to the types of raw materials, like a certain grade of stainless steel.

Pivoting often means working within your means

The earlier example of clothing manufacturers switching to hospital gowns and face masks shows how easy some companies can make some simple changes to their purpose, as long as they already have the equipment and raw materials.

If you’re a 3D printing or additive manufacturing company, that’s easy. You could switch from medical components to furniture to video game accessories in literally a few hours. But for other companies, they may need some additional time.

For example, one of Robroy’s companies, Stahlin, made fiberglass containers, running high volume items on a press. For low-volume items, they would just make it in a mold. But if they wanted to switch their operation to turning out a high volume item like, say, bathtubs, they would need to come up with a new press, which could take a few weeks. They would also have to redefine their processes, which would require the collaboration between the engineers and production associates.

In other places, like the automotive industry, since no one is working, they were able to put their engineering departments to work and ramp up an entire factory to start working on this new product fairly quickly. In essence, they turned their aircraft carrier in a matter of metaphorical minutes, and were able to get their great ship heading in a new direction.

Are you ready to pivot? Has this current crisis helped you rethink your company’s function and purpose? With the right kind of planning and preparing, you could easily make the switch and begin producing some new products.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: 12019 (, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.