Feature Interview with KYZEN – 2020: The year that industry innovated and overcame


A challenging year for industry to say the least – and one that has forced companies to adapt by re-evaluating their existing practices and technologies. Over the last weeks we have caught up with industry figures to discuss how leading companies have reacted to and mitigated the global Covid-19 disruption in 2020 and how they will approach 2021 with a renewed mindset.

Kirsty Hazlewood interviewed Tom Forsythe, Vice President, KYZEN


Firstly, how did your company initially react to the crisis?

For KYZEN, like the rest of the world, it started in China.  We have been doing business in China for decades and have had a direct team there for more than 10 years. Together we realized they were at risk and took steps immediately to help keep them and their families safe. We shipped masks and other PPE into China in January for our team.  Little did we expect that less than 2 months later they would be shipping PPE to our teams around the world to return the favor!

KYZEN has always been about our people, so we started there.  By keeping our people safe, we have been able to operate darn near every day at all our sites around the world.  Of course, that took a lot more than PPE. It took every person at KYZEN keeping their eyes open and consistently doing the smart things to keep them, their families, and the company safe. Nearly a year in, that strategy has succeeded for all of us.


Supply chain challenges affecting production were a major consequence of the pandemic – what areas of the supply chain both regionally and product wise were worst hit and how did you overcome the disruption and manage supply chain risk?

Truth be known, the global supply chains became challenging well before COVID arrived due to tariffs popping up all around the world. As we approached 2020, KYZEN was almost a year into a major supply chain strategic realignment analysis and implementation plan. This affected our operating sites on 3 continents. COVID certainly made a challenging environment that much more complex, a lot more complex in fact.  However, the supply chains we had realigned during 2019 were ready for the challenges we saw around the world. Freight options became increasingly more limited and more expensive as 2020 unfolded, our team was focused on meeting the needs of our customers as well as our substantial in bound freight needs and managed to keep everyone’s lights on throughout the pandemic ~ so far!


How did your operating procedures change regarding staff absenteeism and health and safety? Did you implement a work-from-home policy? What did this mean for normal business operations?

As I mentioned earlier, thanks to our China operations, we saw that something big was coming and prepared starting in January: 

  • We purchased extra laptops so people that could work from home had the tools they would need. Those that could work from home did so. This reduced the risk to our operations team that must be in the building to manufacture our products for our customers.
  • We all got a lot better at Microsoft Teams and quickly.
  • We have always been very health and safety conscious. When people are sick, we send them home, with pay, to get well. This goes back to our founding 30 years ago, so our team knows we are there for them. 
  • We focused on educating our team on methods to stay safe before the COVID monster arrived.  Everyone was ready.  We have had a handful of cases among our global team and no workplace spread thankfully. In fact, we did not have our first positives among employees until July, and while none of the employees that have “caught” COVID are eager to repeat the experience, all survived without experiencing the most harrowing dangers we know have affected so many.
  • Absenteeism has been a small problem for us because everyone accepted personal responsibility and managed to stay safe. Of course, our people have families and neighbors, so while there have been many “risk” of exposure situations, and plenty of individual team member quarantine periods ~ we have been able to meet our customer’s needs through the pandemic at all our sites around the world. 


How did you support your existing customers during the lockdown and how successful was this? 

While we were able to make and ship product, in person sales contact became a real puzzle.  The rules varied by city, county, and country, and at some points changing on a daily basis. As many people know, KYZEN’s field sales engineers and technical support staff is the largest in our industry ~ we touch, literally touch a lot of people each day during normal times.  COVID-19 shifted much of that to Teams, Zoom, WebEx ~ you name it. Our customers count on the technical skills and experience they have access to at KYZEN, and that never stopped. We continued to be in direct contact; helping our customers face their challenges daily. At times this was augmented by onsite technical support when it was allowed by the authorities as well as the client’s own policies.


With exhibitions other face-to-face sales opportunities cancelled, how did you adapt the marketing and sales of your products?

Meeting new folks was a bit more challenging. Fortunately, our multi-lingual web site is but one part of a broad-based, digital dimension to our global marketing initiatives.  We took stock of our objectives as well as the assets we had to accomplish them and went to work. KYZEN’s Tech2Tech 15-minute format technical program became very popular, and we were able to expand it significantly during the pandemic. The live presentations were very successful, but the growing library of solid, to the point technical content is proving to have lasting value to many new viewers each week.

We have also continued to support SMTA and IPC as they navigate the pandemic participating in virtual events and programs of many types to help get the critical technical information that only we can provide out into the marketplace.


Do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to adapt and invent and in fact accelerated innovation?

The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention was proven true each and every day during COVID in every home, business and other organization around the world.  Little was normal, yet we all needed to survive to care for our employees and their families that depend on us. I believe the manufacturing sector in particular has managed to weather the storm better than many because of the high technical skill level at every level of the organization from the shop floor to the executive suites. Those skills allowed us all to find a way to continue operations, and as a result we are well positioned for what comes next.


How do you foresee technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, robotics, and 5G future-proofing the industry against possible future disruptive events?

From the perspective of our industry, the advanced tech you mentioned: IoT, artificial intelligence, robotics, and 5G all allow us to leverage capital and expertise across a broader operations footprint. Whether it is machine learning for IoT, or staff learning from experts, or experts training robots or 5G moving more data more quickly, all of these capabilities spread that capital and expertise. When the next crisis rolls around we will absolutely be able to exceed even the remarkable achievements we manufacturers achieved this go around. 


Has your business model now irrevocably changed and will you continue with some of these changes, even once the world returns to a new normal?

Our industry is all about technology: the people, the facilities and the products are all the result of technology through and through.  Technology never stands still. There is always a better mouse trap around the corner, and our industry is full of the people running headlong around the corner to figure out how to create that better mouse trap.  I would say everyone on earth is in a different place than we were 12-18 months ago when this all started. Some things will get back to normal as soon as it is safe, like going out for a meal.  Other things may take longer, like packing 100,000 people in a football stadium ~ but we will get there.  My guess is we will all be washing our hands more for a very long time, and many will be selective with whom we shake hands with for some time to come. However, we will all race to embrace the loved ones we have been separated from.

As I mentioned, technology is always advancing, always learning.  There is no going back. We will certainly embrace more Teams and Zoom meetings forever, but we will get back on airplanes and we will break bread with strangers so we can get to know each other and better solve the problems we face together.  That is the human conditions, and it will take more than Covid to stop us from being who we are!