by Esther Schindler

How Do You Know When You Run Out of Invisible Ink?

Jun 04, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

I spent last Thursday at the AMR Executive Supply Chain conference, and I expected to come home with pithy wisdom about streamlining manufacturing processes and how IT can ensure it gets a seat at the table where those decisions are reached. Instead, my Hmm of the day (in addition to my contemplation of leadership styles) is about the human ability to embrace change—and our apparently built-in reluctance to do so.

For instance, Tom van Laar, Head Global Technical Operations at Novartis Pharma, explained to the 800 conference attendees how his company is “going lean” with its supply chain, and described his efforts to make the company more process-oriented. One piece of that, he said, was eliminating waste. Van Laar cited an example of a Novartis manufacturing plan which packaged its product in one kind of box; when the box arrived at the next stop in its supply chain (another company-owned plant), the material had to be transferred to another container. Plant-B’s equipment couldn’t use the boxes Plant-A did. Pointed out van Laar, this is one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, with lots of smart people—and they still made a dumb mistake like this. (It’s since been fixed, of course.)

Yet, van Laar pointed out, people always find a reason not to change a process. Pharamaceutical companies hide behind FDA regulations, saying, “Oh, we have to comply with those, we can’t possibly mess with the way we do things.” The gentleman seated to my left during luncheon said his company probably used government contract requirements in the same way, as a reason one couldn’t possibly rock the boat. We all want improvement, but we’re reluctant to drop our guard or to adopt old habits. “People tend to limit what they think needs changing,” commented van Laar.

I’m sure some of this is a preference for “the enemy you know.” Literally, in some cases. During General Colin Powell’s keynote address, he told the story of his first meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow. After a few minutes in which the Russian leader explained what he needed and how the U.S. must work better with the USSR, Gorbachev, said Powell, realized that his message wasn’t getting through. Gorbachev stopped talking, smiled, and said softly, “I am so sorry, General. You will have to find a new enemy.” Those were hard words to hear for a soldier trained in “contain the commies” as a long-term strategy. Powell said that his first inner thought was, “But I don’t want to.”

We can all talk about the difficulty of changing our organization and our processes. But the first step is to recognize that we each have a comfort level with the problems that are most familiar to us. Doing otherwise creates situation in which staff have to be paid to move materials from one box to another.