Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lean Manufacturing Finds a Place in Pharma

Since I will be working in the pharmaceutical industry starting next September, I was very interested to see how the pharma industry has used lean manufacturing to stay ahead of the market. Especially in an industry where R&D costs amount to almost the full cost of a product, lean thinking and lean manufacturing are necessary to stay competitive in the pharmaceutical industry. I found an article that outlines how pharmaceutical companies are incorporating lean thinking into both their research and development and their manufacturing to phenomenal results.

First, it's interesting to note that most pharma companies held off on lean manufacturing as long as possible. Since most of the cost of the product was in R&D, many companies felt that they could gain little to nothing from making their manufacturing processes lean. However, that laissez-faire attitude is changing as pressure begins to come from all places in the market. "The industry's need to increase productivity, combined with pressure from the government, is driving companies to turn to lean," says Robert Blaha, president of Human Capital Associates.

At Pfizer, they decided to use lean principles to cut down on waste in research and experiments. They created a process called critical question mapping, a way to map out all the critical questions that will have to be answered to successfully create a product. In addition to mapping, Pfizer views everyone as a scientist looking for answers. No matter of job title, everyone is expected to question everything and provide answers when ever possible. By creating a system that houses all questions and allows people to answer, research and development time is greatly decreased and successes are much more common.

GlaxoSmithKline (my future employer) focuses on lean manufacturing in the factories. After training 6,500 employees in green belt Six Sigma and lean concepts, they have found tons of benefits. One product's manufacturing costs was cut down by 25% and job satisfaction levels skyrocketed when employees could see exactly what they were accomplishing in the standardized work process. In addition, more open and efficient communication now exists between employees and managers. GSK swears by a combination of principles from Six Sigma and lean when redesigning a process.

It's interesting to see lean manufacturing in an industry that originally thought it was unnecessary and a waste of time. But as pharma companies became more and more competitive and cutthroat, they have found that any time saved is invaluable. Pfizer found a way to make their R&D more streamlined, increasing communication of questions and answers and cutting down on time. GSK took a more typical approach, bringing lean and Six Sigma concepts onto factory floors to shave off extra expenses and wasteful steps.

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