Five process lessons from New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic

How to achieve excellent process management and improvement through effective communication, clear expectations rooted in expert knowledge and a willingness to adapt

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According to Time Magazine, “New Zealand’s rise in the rankings [of countries conquering Covid-19] is so much more than good geographic fortune.”

While New Zealand’s elimination of the Covid-19 virus was not permanent, as limited immigration saw new cases ‘imported’ some weeks after the virus was declared eliminated, few could argue that the nation’s handling of the pandemic has been anything short of spectacular.

Many factors have contributed to their success, from the country’s geographic isolation and population spread to the populace’s response to government mandates. The outcomes of their effort make this success an excellent case study of process management done well.

The solution belongs to everyone

One of the key distinctions in New Zealand’s response was the way the nation rallied to the call. While essential workers, healthcare professionals and government agencies bore the brunt of the fight against the virus, it was constantly reaffirmed that it was everyone’s responsibility to make a difference. Those in charge regularly referred to the ‘team of five million,’ referencing New Zealand’s entire population as a unified group with a singular goal.

When organizations try to bring about change, a key factor is the support of the wider company. While it is important to have executive backing and sponsorship, if those on the front lines of the business do not own the vision as their own, they are unlikely to look for ways to contribute to it. They need to understand that they have something to offer which can help bring about positive change for the business.

While not every New Zealander could actively contribute to securing the borders or isolating and treating patients, they were continuously encouraged to look to what they could do that would slow the spread of the illness. They saw themselves as part of a wider solution and considered even the inconveniences of isolation as their contribution to the cause. A shared commitment empowered change and gave immense momentum to the processes being implemented.

Key lesson: Call people to be part of a greater mission and build on their momentum.

Communication connects

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern communicated often, and well. There were daily briefings before the national press with medical experts present, dedicated websites with clear instructions, and even the national emergency broadcast system was co-opted to declare the beginning of the most severe lockdown measures.

The Prime Minister made a televised address to the nation from her office, the first time that had been done in nearly 40 years. Julie McCarthy from NPR wrote, “A mother of a 21-month-old, Ardern, 39, regularly appears on Facebook Live chats, dressed in a sweatshirt, commiserating with families enduring isolation and assuring children the tooth fairy is still on the job.”

Communicating what is happening and why is vital to the success of any process. That does not mean sending out the odd memo or including the importance of process management in a presentation at the AGM. In order for people to grasp the significance of your initiative, they need to see it regularly.

Your message also needs to be accessible, and should address the concerns people have. While some criticized Prime Minister Ardern’s comments about the Easter Bunny being given ‘essential worker’ status in an official press conference, hundreds of thousands of parents struggling to entertain children at home over the Easter period appreciated the compassion and understanding that it communicated.

Those few comments showed that the leaders understood the real challenges faced by the people who were tasked with implementing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. When management takes communication seriously, they can bring people on board by addressing real concerns with genuine understanding.

Key lesson: Keep people informed about what matters to them to keep them on board.

Clarity and simplicity

When the New Zealand government acted, they implemented a four-level response plan. Each step had clear definitions of what was going to happen, and when it would be implemented. While terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ were being used regularly, leaders ensured the message did not get buried in jargon. Prime Minister Ardern exhorted New Zealanders to “‘act like you have Covid-19” and urged people to “be strong and be kind”. Each measure implemented was well-defined and applied uniformly. While there was some pushback on some elements, there was no confusion.

Process documentation has traditionally been relegated to arcane artifacts understood only by a select few. The confusing tangle of lines and diagrams often makes process information harder to find or follow and leads to the procedure manual being left on the shelf while business teams make it up for themselves.

By clarifying process information and making it easy to access and understand, organizations can ensure those responsible for executing the procedures will do so the right way. New Zealand explicitly stated what was and was not allowable at each level of their response and continued to clarify those frameworks as they were being worked through by the population. It meant that everyone had a clear outline of their responsibilities and were able to work effectively within the boundaries they were given.

Key lesson: Give people clear instructions and frameworks that encourage engagement.

Work with the experts

For almost every weekday of the lockdown, Prime Minister Ardern held a 1pm press conference to address the nation’s ongoing efforts to fight Covid-19. Alongside her at every one of these briefings was the Health Director General Dr Ashley Bloomfield. He was more than just window dressing; Dr Bloomfield answered questions and provided the medical expertise to back up the Prime Minister's strategies. It was a key partnership that provided both leadership and reassurance for the nation.

It is rare that any process professional is also going to be a subject-matter expert on every procedure they implement. That is why they need to rely on the wisdom and experience of those who know the processes at the ground level. Inviting teams and process users to collaborate on building better processes brings a wealth of knowledge to the table. While they may not be trained in Six Sigma, they can identify common breakdowns, clarify the typical workarounds that they use, and distill processes down to the essential elements that really get employed.

Relevant information can provide a genuine snapshot of what is being done, so the process experts can begin to analyze it and strategize improvements. Ardern won respect by deferring to Bloomfield on medical questions, letting the technical expert speak to what he knew best, and in doing so leveraged his experience to strengthen her message.

Key lesson: Invite subject matter experts to contribute to your processes for more robust and reliable outcomes.

Adapt and overcome

The severity of New Zealand’s lockdown was not an easy sell, but it was a necessity to achieve the complete elimination that the government had set as a target. However, once community transmission had been eliminated and existing Covid-19 cases were under control, those restrictions began to be removed.

The removal of restrictions did not always go smoothly. When transitioning from level three to level two, it was announced that social gatherings would be allowed but limited to a maximum of ten people. That included funerals and similar traditional Maori tangi gatherings. After meeting with concerned church and community leaders, those requirements were revised and the country entered level two with up to 50 people allowed at a funeral, so long as certain health requirements were observed. It mirrored the opposite effect earlier in the country’s response plan, when business leaders urged the government to accelerate their plans to move to level four, and within days that shift was announced.

Processes and procedures are not static documents. Markets change, technologies evolve and customer expectations shift. All of these adjustments impact your strategic goals, as well as the path it will take to accomplish them. Listening to the people who are closest to the point of process execution is vital for capturing those changes early and having the agility to change with them. A culture of continuous improvement welcomes feedback from the people who use the process in their everyday work, and seeks to implement those recommendations for the good of the entire organization.

New methodologies, changes in systems or the introduction of technologies like automation are all opportunities to add value, and good process management welcomes those kinds of suggestions and weighs them carefully. When the New Zealand government received pushback on their level two plans, they did not change them without consultation, and the suggested variations were subject to careful controls. That said, they did listen to the people who would be implementing the procedures and developed a revised plan on the go.

Key lesson: Welcome suggestions, consult those who will execute your processes and work collaboratively to improve them.

Lessons learned

Debate still rages over how best to address the Covid-19 pandemic globally, and while New Zealand has had remarkable success so far, the arrival of expats and families carrying the disease on their shores has proven that the war is not won.

Nonetheless, what is obvious is the vivid example of excellent process management and improvement that works. By engaging the populace with effective communication, providing clear expectations backed up by expert knowledge and a willingness to adapt, New Zealand has achieved significant success.

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