by Thor Olavsrud

Pfizer drives digital operations overhaul

Aug 10, 20215 mins
CIO 100Data ManagementDigital Transformation

With the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst, the pharmaceutical company has accelerated its digital transformation to manage its operations and supply chain more effectively.

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Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, pharmaceutical titan Pfizer, like many companies around the world, faced significant productivity, supply chain, and safety concerns. A key to its success in navigating the challenges brought about by global shutdowns was the development of the Pfizer Global Supply – Digital Operations Center (DOC) project.

DOC is a patent-pending solution that acts as the cockpit for Pfizer operations, providing a shared view of end-to-end manufacturing and supply operational performance data. Data from DOC has helped Pfizer identify opportunities to reduce up to 10% of cycle-time in some manufacturing areas. It has been critical to Pfizer’s ability to manufacture and supply the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine around the world. The project has earned Pfizer a CIO 100 Award in IT Excellence.

“This solution has transformed how manufacturing colleagues collaborate and make decisions, providing tools to enable them to predict an issue before it happens and adjust in real time,” says Lidia Fonseca, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer at Pfizer. “The DOC allows teams to mine data to provide analysis on variations compared to previously estimate standard lead-times, enabling further improvement opportunities.”

Accelerating digital adoption

Pfizer was already undergoing digital transformation when the pandemic hit, but managing day-to-day operations grew significantly more challenging as lockdowns sent many on-site employees to work remotely. To ensure Pfizer colleagues around the globe stayed connected and to maintain critical supply continuity for patients reliant on Pfizer pharmaceuticals, Pfizer formed the DOC Rapid Deployment Program to accelerate DOC deployment across hundreds of manufacturing operations within weeks. Fonseca says the pandemic acted as a catalyst to accelerate Pfizer’s digital adoption by five years.

Lidia Fonseca, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer, Pfizer

Lidia Fonseca, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer, Pfizer

Until then, planning and deploying a DOC in a manufacturing site took an average of two years. To accelerate the process under COVID-19, Pfizer moved to a new architecture and used agile development practices to identify and prioritize key improvements such as moving to the cloud, leveraging full containerization, and using scalable database technology. The company also added new administrative functions that enable employees to own configuration elements tied to their site.

Instead of changing business processes to support the new digital solutions, Pfizer followed customer experience research and design principles to support the Pfizer Global Supply (PGS) team’s Integrate Manufacturing Excellence (IMEx) Production System, Fonseca says.

“The Digital and Manufacturing teams partnered on the requirements and then co-created the solution,” Fonseca says. “The DOC solution team studied the user personas and created journey maps for each persona tied to the daily end-to-end processes. In the design process, we discovered that, for the solution to be successfully adopted, it could not take away ownership of the data from the people closest to the process.”

The project not only replicated production system operations processes, it also augmented the full benefits of lean manufacturing by digitizing those processes and data sets, Fonseca says.

“Based on the process data that had been automatically collected, analyzed, and presented in an easy-to-understand format, it became easier to pick the highest value-add improvement projects,” Fonseca says.

The DOC uses the standards created by IMEx to direct the daily activities performed by manufacturing colleagues at all levels of the organization, from the shop floor up.

Typically, Pfizer’s biggest challenge in rolling out new solutions is achieving buy-in from employees most affected by the change, Fonseca says. But this rollout was different. Instead, the demand for DOC from Pfizer’s manufacturing operations team was extremely high, as it would enable them to continue their work while keeping only essential personnel on the shop floor. As a result, Fonseca says the biggest challenge was keeping up.

“This demand required us to think differently with bold ideas to meet this urgent need as quickly as possible,” she says. “It was amazing to see our manufacturing and digital teams partner closely to co-develop in innovative ways to scale deployments in record time.”

The digital culture imperative

Pfizer began its digital transformation journey in 2019, determined to become a leaner, more science-driven and more patient-focused organization. As part of that transition, the plan was to implement a new operating model with industry-first digital solutions to support the strategy. Fonseca says the fact it had already begun this journey, and was changing its culture as a result, helped make the company as ready as it could be when the pandemic hit.

“We also saw the benefits of working in parallel rather than sequentially to drive speed,” Fonseca says. “Our culture was instrumental in encouraging our employees to be courageous and think differently to accomplish what we previously would not have imagined possible.”

Pfizer’s digital transformation journey is ongoing. Fonseca says that she expects the company will come to look more like a biotech company in the future, but with the scale of Pfizer.

“As part of this transformation, we have been focused on radically simplifying our ways of working to remove bureaucracy that tends to come with large organizations,” she says. “I think this is important for companies of any size who are looking to implement more digital adoption in new ways.”

Fonseca says a key part of that simplification has been to infuse agile ways of working and horizontal thinking into the fabric of Pfizer’s culture. She also notes that focusing on bringing people along on the journey by clearly communicating the company’s digital strategy to inspire employees’ support and participation has been key.