Adapting to change as coronavirus takes hold

Change is a word that is disliked in our industry. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard “I don’t like change”. But growing up as the son of a career soldier, my life was constantly about change as we moved around the world. I have lived in Singapore, the Middle East, the UK, Bermuda, Malaysia and Australia, and I now spend much of my time flying so I have learned to manage change.

Likewise, our industry has experienced events that have forced change.

There’s been the rise of global terrorism. The 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 changed the way we travel, with better technologies to keep us safe. We learned to accept inconveniences, such as having to undergo detailed searches before boarding flights.

Before that, there was the 1997 Asian financial crisis that almost destroyed our growing industry. My expatriate friends were sent back to their homes, but we changed the way we worked and supported them from afar with short hops into the plants. 

The German deposit recycling experiment in 2003 almost wrecked the beverage can industry in that country. Afterwards, we learned the importance of forward planning.

At Cannex in Singapore in 2006, many exhibitors reacted to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic with signs in the hall apologising for their absence due to fear of infection. The same scenario emerged globally with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) – also known as ‘mad cow disease’ – Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), swine flu, Ebola and more recently African swine fever. We thought we had adapted swiftly to these epidemics and in doing so learned how to better look after the health and wellbeing of our employees.

The campaign against plastics waste, which began after Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series was aired, has seen a number of positives for the canmaking industry. We have helped the campaign gain momentum, with demand for cans growing at a rate I haven’t seen since the Asian Tiger economies built up in the early-to-late nineties.

Now we are facing our biggest challenge – coronavirus. This has put the world in lockdown and how we deal with this will show what we are made of. We can either retreat with a stockpile of food, an arsenal of weapons and an ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality – or we can pull together and make changes. 

We need to look at new ways to communicate. Until coronavirus hit us, we would spend our days, weeks and months with a 24-hour mentality that couldn’t be escaped. And I am a prime example of that. I travelled ten-and-a-half months last year and answered my emails and texts almost 20 hours a day. Don’t get me wrong, these are my choices and I believe face-to-face is still the best way to run a business. 

However, we shouldn’t dwell on the negatives of the situation we are in and instead accept the need for change. In my long experience, managers in plants that remained positive, stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, while changing their mindsets, often solved problems more quickly.

What will we learn as we traverse this latest life lesson? Hopefully, that we can be face-to-face by using better and more reliable video conferencing systems. We will also discover that we can respond more quickly when there is a problem by using technology, such as Industry 4.0 and predictive maintenance, instead of resorting to crisis management.

Ultimately, with more time in our offices, in our plants and dealing with problems – and more time with our families – we will be more productive and happier too.

Like the stock market, I see this less as a market crash, more of a life realignment. Together we can make a difference and together we can get through this – together we can.