– Written by Elizabeth Farquhar for the Center for Services Leadership
Months before the U.S. woke up to the threat of COVID-19, Ron Zielinski was hearing about a new kind of pneumonia in China. Zielinski, who leads Global Customer Services for Coherent Inc., heard from one of his managers in Singapore in late December that there were some 12 to 14 of these cases in Wuhan. They agreed to keep an eye on it, he says, and “since then I feel like I’ve had a front row seat to this pandemic unfolding.”
At the time, China was about to shut down for New Year celebrations, when millions travel to visit family. “I knew we were in trouble,” Zielinski says. Businesses outside of Wuhan continued to operate but overall, China slowed and as the pandemic advanced, supply and demand in all of the company’s geographies were affected.
These times demand a different way of thinking about building long term success. We hear a lot about resilience, but Zielinski has another idea, from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.” Zielinski suggests that rather that striving for resiliency – the ability to resist stress and stay the same — organizations can work on the opposite. Companies that are antifragile manage through periods of stress and emerge better.
Zielinski oversees global field services for Coherent, which designs, manufactures and services lasers, laser tools, precision optics and related products. “We run a complex business,” he explains. “We’ve got a couple hundred product families, ranging from laser bio components all the way up to full systems.”
Its 125 employees in China provide services on Coherent products that are installed in Chinese companies. For many of the products, Coherent can provide service support locally. “But for a some of the specialized products we’ve relied on experts who fly in from another part of the country, or from one country to another,” Zielinski says. But the pandemic has tied a knot in international travel. Flights are few or not available at all, making it difficult or impossible to get the experts into the field where they are needed.
In response, Coherent had to lean on its digital resources.
Zielinski said Coherent had already stated developing a knowledge base when companies began locking down to control the virus. Engineers who found themselves working remotely doubled down and were able to produce in just a few months a volume of content that had been projected to take a year. Those resources, including video, were designed to be accessible and useful to customers in hard-to-reach locations. An example of antifragile: creating resources quickly in a crisis.
As conditions improved, Coherent was able to bring field services back to some customers and is currently operating at about 70 percent of capacity. To protect its employees, the company now requires clients to sign a form guaranteeing that they will follow local rules concerning health and safety, and that technicians will be allowed to leave the site if they do not feel safe.
What will a post-pandemic world look like? Will global markets return to pre-pandemic business conditions or is this a new normal: fewer people working in offices, travel restricted, resources provided digitally instead of in-person? Zielinski says the pandemic currently looks more like a forest fire than a wave that crests and then subsides. And he thinks the world will see outbreaks of infection for a long time to come. Those challenges will provide opportunities for companies with the right leader to survive, changed and stronger.