The atmosphere in the drab meeting room had its usual tomb-like feel as bored attendees sat around a table in silence awaiting the arrival of the Operations Vice President. It was a bi-weekly ritual we all wished could simply be ignored. But this was many years ago, before automated calendar schedulers where you could claim being double-booked—and skip out. In those days, the secretary sent you a memo instructing you where and when the meeting was, and attendance was usually mandatory. And this one was no exception—it was the dreaded, “suggestion- box” meeting.
The VP entered the room and sat down—emotionless and stoic, his stern voice crackling with the love of a grizzly, he opened with the familiar greeting: “Morning, we have suggestions to cover so let’s get started. Joyce, what do we have new to review?” With that, his administrative assistant handed him the latest suggestions. His eyebrows lifted in surprise, “Well, this meeting will be short, only five new ones, let’s cover these and adjourn.”
A sigh of relief hung in the air, like when you won your first prize at the carnival—innocent achievement, but so important. As his assistant read the note cards there was nothing earth-shattering, just the usual: “Install more bug zappers in the warehouse, not enough parking spaces, the water coolers are always empty……yada yada yada.” It all appeared routine until the last suggestion was read aloud:
“I have been trying to locate the revised procedure for changing the vent filters on the WFI tank, can we get one approved? We haven’t changed those filters in quite sometime.”
Water for injection, (WFI), is used in the injectable drug manufacturing process and this particular company was a large pharmaceutical company. They produced intravenous drugs used for treating respiratory infections and within two days after this meeting, quality control issued a memo that opened with this sentence: “Operations, we have a problem….” Uh, oh.
Before the drug could be sent downstream for further processing, the quality control unit conducted a series of tests on the liquid samples to determine if there were any particles of detrimental origin. What was happening is they were rejecting every batch due to particles being found in the samples. And within a day, they identified the culprit—polypropylene.
A frenzy of activity ensued to investigate how polypropylene was finding its way into the manufacturing process, and late one evening, six days after quality control first issued their memo, the WFI vent filters were checked. It was observed they had completely dissolved due to being kept in use well beyond their life expectancy. The root cause was finally determined, the filters were comprised of 100% polypropylene.
As a safety precaution, the company initiated a voluntary recall of all drug lots produced. This alerted the Food and Drug Administration, (FDA), and they later issued a stern warning letter. Heads rolled, and the total bill for this ordeal totally north of twenty million dollars. And the cost of the filter? Three hundred dollars and eighty-six cents. Ouch.
At this company, the suggestion box was the sole means to foster input from employees without them having to reveal their identity—bravo. Trouble is, there is little in the way of engagement with a suggestion box that at times, goes unchecked for weeks.
This prompts a question. Why did the employee feel he had to communicate something of such importance via the suggestion box as opposed to bringing it to someone’s attention that could have immediately linked his idea to an outcome? The problem was that this particular firm did not promote idea sharing, management ruled by hierarchy, people felt intimidated, and ideas were squelched. Furthermore, the suggestion about the filter was written twenty-three days prior to the VP’s meeting. Ouch again.
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 11:26 am
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.