There were classes offered all day Tuesday by the Power House, a fitness gym with locations in Woodbury, St. Louis Park and St. Paul.

The three gyms, of course, are currently closed. But Power House staffers are still working with their clients, largely via the video conference application Zoom.

“What we do is provide coaching,” not just a place to work out, said co-owner Max Lipset.

An intense fitness experience won’t appeal to everybody interested in staying fit, but what’s interesting about the Power House approach is that Lipset and his wife, Jill Lipset, realized that they are in the service business. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way service can be delivered. It hasn’t stopped it.

Members without the kettlebells, weights and other equipment at home had the chance to borrow equipment. Max Lipset described the three gyms this week as “all picked over” by members who took equipment home to use.

The Power House has a number of physicians and other health care workers as members, and the mission of the company is help people prevent disease and injury. And so Lipset plans to lean on their advice for how to reopen the spaces when the opportunity occurs.

“We are not going to do anything that will spread illness, disease and injury,” he said.

The company will, however, still be in the coaching business, just like the Riverview Theater and Parkway Theater in Minneapolis this week remain in the movie-screening business, other examples of problem solving to keep a connection with paying customers. Their virtual showings go for $10 per ticket.

It’s a little easier to be in the virtual service delivery business if a provider was already down that path, having previously recognized that some potential customers can’t come in. That explains how the University of Minnesota libraries were ready to go virtual in mid-March.

Up to 80% of the libraries’ collections are available online, said John Butler, the associate university librarian for data & technology.

“We have been working on this for 20, 25 years,” he told me this week. “I go back to the early 1990s when we looked at anytime, anywhere access to the library resources and services as our Holy Grail.”

The university’s libraries can now provide students, faculty and staff online access to roughly 17 million books and journals.

Instead of fixating on what can’t be done for users, these are examples of focusing on what can, consistent with the social distancing necessary to block further transmission of a virus that could be with us for a while.

The governor Thursday eased social distancing rules for more retailers on Thursday, providing an opportunity for them to serve customers. But they need to figure out how to do it well in a different way, too, at the curb rather than in the shop.

As the pandemic disrupted daily life and business, there has been hand-wringing about how the problems have been harder to solve because businesses cared far too much about efficiency and not nearly enough about resiliency, doing things like outsourcing critical work to distant locations where a hiccup could cause trouble.

It’s a valid criticism, of course, including with workforce practices that left lots of workers with no way to build reserves of their own to rely on. There will be much more to be said as the pandemic continues and we see what changes come out of this.

Yet while rooting around in academic journals for articles about the topic, I ran across the story of a factory fire in Japan, a hopeful one about business problem-solving in the kind of crisis that should have shut down a major carmaker.

The fire happened 23 years ago and might not have been of much interest even then outside the automotive industry, at an Aisin Seiki Co. car-parts plant near Toyota Motor’s hometown.

The plant produced a small valve used in automotive brakes. It wasn’t a very complex or costly component but, of course, it had to be of the highest quality. A weekend fire in 1997 wrecked Aisin’s production line for this part, including critical equipment that would take weeks if not months to replace.

Toyota completely relied on this one plant, a puzzling problem for a company already famous for its management practices. Its Toyota Production System remains a shining example of a way of organizing and directing work that efficiently produces high-quality products.

Toyota did not have a big stockpile of these valves because that wasn’t how its system worked. Instead, parts were meant to keep arriving just in time at its own assembly plants to reduce the waste of parts inventories. After the fire, Toyota was facing a production shutdown within a day.

Toyota plants did shut down, too. But they opened again right away and were back to planned production rates within a couple of weeks.

Sixty-two firms working more-or-less together turned out to be how Toyota worked through this crisis, as valves at least party built by others besides Aisin soon started arriving at Toyota plants. Parts suppliers had good reason to want to help a customer as big as Toyota, of course, yet one supplier was a sewing-machine maker that had never before built a car part.

As described in a great history of the episode in the MIT Sloan Management Review, one main takeaway from this story is that no one at Toyota was directing the relief effort from a corner office. There was no central authority making the calls on what to do.

Instead it was staff much closer to the work at Aisin, other suppliers and Toyota that figured out with each other what had to be done. And then together they solved the problem, really fast.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302