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The ‘Million Hour Challenge’

AstraZeneca employees save two million hours through simplification


For large organisations, complexity can be a daily challenge. AstraZeneca can certainly identify with this challenge. The organisation strives to push the boundaries of science and deliver life-changing medicines to patients, a task that by nature is not very simple. With a spectrum of developments in the pipeline, AstraZeneca recognised it was now more important than ever to simplify operations and to focus its time on what matters most to the organisation: science, customers and employees.

Time is a universal currency and we wanted to unite the entire organisation encompassing simplification around a common vision. AstraZeneca challenged all employees to simplify and save 1 million hours to focus on what matters. Employees were inspired by the challenge and doubled the outcome, resulting in two million hours saved to spend on science to develop innovative medicines, to spend on customers to reach patients faster and to spend time on their own personal development.

The aspiration to have a simplified and agile organisation was a challenge set by members of the leadership team. They truly wanted to make the company a great place to work for all employees. Two years ago, the decision was taken for a structured approach to simplification through a Center of Excellence for Simplification. Pushkala Subramanian, VP and head of the Simplification Center of Excellence, says: “We wanted to tackle large complex enterprise challenges that crossed functional boundaries, but we also wanted to empower every employee to challenge and simplify the small blockers they see around them every day. We needed to have a scalable movement that will help us establish a culture and sustain the mindset for simplification. We needed a two-dimensional approach.”

The first dimension of the Center of Excellence was to focus on end-to-end enterprise processes that crossed functional boundaries. Tackling simplification at an enterprise scale is a leadership challenge in any large organisation. Success of enterprise-level simplification efforts required strong senior leader sponsorship as well as an effective steering team of leaders who are willing to collaborate and sometimes let go of less optimal functional ways of working to deliver enterprise level outcomes.

The second dimension for the Center of Excellence was to connect simplification to a cohesive goal that gives something back to employees and advances the purpose of the organisation. The search for that goal led Subramanian to Penny James, VP, head of innovative medicines and early development (IMED) Operations. In 2016, the IMED leadership team set the challenge to simplify the way it works. But what is the essence of simplification from a science perspective? “It always came back to time, to follow the science and push the boundaries,” says James.  “Everyone wants the fastest, cutting-edge science, and to obtain that, creating time is a universal currency that everyone recognises and values.”

The concept was born on the premise that if employees could simplify their ways of working, such as simplifying procedures, improving systems and optimising meetings, less time would be spent on non-value add administrative work, and more time could be focused towards science. In 2016, the ‘Time for Science’ campaign in the IMED delivered 100,000 hours back to scientists by reducing administrative burden at various levels, and that time was repurposed by the scientists to work on innovative medicines.

Subramanian saw the idea of freeing up time for what matters as a universal goal for simplification, not just AstraZeneca employees, but something anyone can relate to. Since the Center of Excellence was tasked with engaging nearly 60,000 employees across all of AstraZeneca, time became an enterprise currency to unite all employees in a simplification movement. It was then that Subramanian created the ‘Million Hour Challenge’, a global grassroots initiative, challenging employees to collectively save a million hours through simplification, spanning across AstraZeneca’s multiple business sites, commercial markets and business unit functions.

The ‘Million Hour Challenge’ launched as a self-started and voluntary campaign, driven by the global Simplification Center of Excellence and supported through the self-developed Simplification Champion Network, a global network of simplification ambassadors across the organisation’s commercial markets and business functions. “The act to simplify can be both vague and intimidating. We wanted the concept of simplification and saving time to be tangible, and practical,” says Subramanian. “The goal of a million hours is asking each employee to simplify and save just thirty minutes each week. One million hours is an inspiring big number, but 30 minutes per week makes that less daunting. It is big and small at the same time.”

To help employees navigate to their starting point, the ‘3-steps to Simplification’ training tool was developed, a portal to share their stories was launched and a ‘simple time calculator’ was introduced to help employees track how many hours they unlocked.

One year after the launch of the ‘Million Hour Challenge’, more than two million hours have been saved globally in a united approach from nearly 60,000 employees across more than 100 countries. In this period, more than 700 simplification projects were recorded. Selected examples include:

Over 700,000 hours saved for sales representatives in AstraZeneca China to focus on customers, through a combination of simplifying field data collection, improved territory and quota management, optimisation of external speaker management and enhancement of sales cycle operations

Over 500,000 hours saved by reducing the administrative burden for scientists in drug discovery and development and standardising and digitising clinical trial operations
*    Over 100,000 hours saved from a range of employee-centred processes such as hiring, recruitment, learning and development
*    Over 130,000 hours saved in Operations, with over 180 simplification projects completed, such as a Business Process Management Portal launched as a one-stop shop to store documentation, minimising the time spent searching for information

Several thousand hours came from individuals and teams who tackled small, everyday blockers around them and shared their stories, whether it was simplifying email communications or optimising team meetings.

Since the initiative launched, AstraZeneca has seen two consecutive increases in the bi-annual employee engagement survey, with 69% of AstraZeneca employees agreeing that ‘Together, we are making progress in our efforts to simplify the way we work’ (compared to 56% two cycles back).

The success of the ‘Million (2 Million) Hour Challenge’ made the Center of Excellence push the boundaries of Simplification even further. In May 2017, AstraZeneca introduced the first ever ‘World Simplification Day’, encouraging all employees across the globe to come together to celebrate the two million hours that was unlocked in a year and to continue to find new ways to keep up the momentum.

For example, as part of ‘World Simplification Day’, simplification champions in AstraZeneca Brazil launched a ‘Waste Hunter’s Contest’ - an initiative built on lean principles.  This encouraged employees to propose opportunities to eliminate wastage across the business, with the winner provided with travel and accommodation to another market, and share best practices. “World Simplification Day and the Waste Hunter’s Contest produced many benefits for simplification, but what pleasantly surprised me is that it brought together colleagues from all different roles and backgrounds, who likely would not have connected, actually come together to collaborate towards the same goals,” said Roberto Uemura, simplification lead champion in AstraZeneca Brazil. This initiative is now under consideration as a long-term programme across South America.

Now that simplification is becoming embedded in the mindset of every employee in AstraZeneca, the Center of Excellence is embarking on the next steps to teach employees how to simplify using time-tested Lean and Six Sigma methodologies. “Lean enables us to eliminate waste and consistently deliver positive outcomes for our customers,” says Dave Smoley, global chief information officer. Starting in 2017, Subramanian is leveraging the IT function as a test-bed and encouraging all employees to eliminate 1,000 incidents of wastage in 1,000 days by applying lean principles and achieving the highest level of Lean Maturity by 2020.

Simplification is a never-ending journey. The outcomes achieved so far have given our employees the confidence that anyone can simplify. The tolerance for complexity has decreased and expectations for a simpler organisation have increased.

Article by
Quynh Szuba

is associate director, simplification at AstraZeneca

31st January 2018

Article by
Quynh Szuba

is associate director, simplification at AstraZeneca

31st January 2018

From: Research



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