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Leaning forward

Allergy Therapeutics used lean management tools to make their Odyssey of improvement

Crops leaning in windAllergy Therapeutics develops, manufactures and sells a range of pharmaceutical products for the treatment and prevention of allergy. The company's flagship product is Pollinex Quattro, which is transforming immunotherapy by vaccinating against allergy with only four injections.

Allergy Therapeutics vaccines are prescribed only by medical practitioners and are administered either by injection or by placement under the tongue. In addition to branded products, the company also develops 'specifics' to address unique combinations of allergies for individual patients. The breadth of the company's product portfolio means that hundreds of products can be supplied, in thousands of combinations.

The £45m business is headquartered in Worthing, UK, with extensive sales and marketing operations in several European countries. Patient safety is the company's priority and vaccines must comply with the strict pharmaceutical regulations that apply in each country in which its products are sold.

At the start of the 'Odyssey' journey, the name given to the company's improvement programme, variation in the production process resulted in some defective product that had to be scrapped and remade. Such incidents of variability were a resource burden that was not sustainable and warranted action.

Treating the cause
Having identified this problem, the solution proposed was to engage a business improvement consultancy using the most appropriate resources from within the Allergy business to mount a two-pronged attack on process improvement using lean tools and techniques.

To aid in this task, Allergy Therapeutics appointed S A Partners, the UK's longest established lean enterprise consultancy, known globally for challenging, coaching and supporting businesses to achieve performance improvements through the application of lean principles.

The initial steps involved the introduction of cross-functional teams working with the external lean consultants to identify and resolve the root causes of variability, which it was anticipated would reduce waste, free up capacity and enhance sustainability. Historically the focus had been on the speed at which incidents were resolved, rather than the quality of the resolution. In future, the teams would strive for a quality outcome.

Furthermore, the frontline workers on the 'shop floor' were given the authority to stop the production line if a fault occurred and to call for help from relevant qualified personnel before production resumed. This was a marked progression from the former problem-solving process, which saw managers getting together in a meeting room to resolve problems; the new method, on the other hand, handed the authority back to the people directly involved in the process, empowering them to solve problems as they occurred.

Risk management was the other main area identified as needing immediate action. The potential risks facing the business were analysed to enable this risk to be managed proactively. Teams attended more than 40 workshops working on a PFMEA — a Process Failure Mode and Effect Analysis — which examined the potential risks in producing a core product. Each risk was given a score based on severity of impact, likely occurrence and ease of detection. Using these scores, the team could prioritise risks and consider counter-measures to reduce the chance of variability occurring and/or increase the likelihood of detection.

Allergy Therapeutics began discussions with its suppliers to eradicate variability that may be caused by raw materials, thereby extending lean thinking upstream in the supply chain.

Tracking progress
With the arrival of positive action came the need to measure the effectiveness of the techniques being used. Allergy appointed a full-time manager to the Odyssey project and established a project room as a base. Senior managers were given roles as project sponsors to reinforce the impact of the project in supporting the company's overall strategy. Weekly PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) meetings were scheduled, and a tracking document was used to report on the progress that had been made on numerous concurrent projects.

After the first year, a communication event was held, at which each of the teams could explain to their colleagues what had been achieved so far.

The Odyssey programme has proven to be a great success for Allergy Therapeutics, exceeding expectations and attracting a host of benefits — some with a monetary value, and some without, but all critical to the success of the business.

The benefits achieved so far include:
• A reduction in wasted product
• Above-target financial savings
• Development of personal skills: for example, 25 per cent of the workforce is now trained in lean problem-solving techniques
• Involvement of staff at all levels and the building of teams working across functional boundaries
• Improved staff morale
• Increased communication with staff regarding the programme's achievements — a 'voice' for all those that contributed
• Improved customer satisfaction
• A culture of interrogating and targeting root causes
• A methodology for proactively managing risk through the PFMEA
• Greater collaboration with suppliers
• A more structured process for classifying and resolving incidents.


A Pollinex pack
Pollinex Quattro allergy vaccine


The inside view
When Ray Keeling, head of supply operations for Allergy Therapeutics, took on his role, he found that there was inherent variability in processes, resulting in waste. With a desire to revolutionise the existing dated and inefficient processes, he focused on the core brand and put in place effective, structured problem-solving techniques, based on fact and scientific-based evidence. His vision was to move to a culture of transformational change in order to enhance sustainable business performance, a move that led to the start of the Odyssey project.

Keeling presented the Odyssey business case to the board and explained the need to make an investment in skills development and diagnostic work. Odyssey was originally conceived as a three-year project and, while it was anticipated that the investment would not necessarily see tangible results in the first six months, the first year's results far exceeded original expectations.

Having secured the board's support, Keeling interviewed a number of consultancies to find a lean partner that would challenge and externalise the process, which Keeling acknowledges was 'desperately needed'.

According to Keeling, S A Partners brought a comprehensive 'Zero Defects' approach that was closely aligned to Odyssey's objectives, which included establishing a skills transfer programme to ensure that over time the improvements could be carried on without external guidance. Success of the operation could be attributed to a number of factors, as Keeling explains: "We embedded and integrated the skills and problem-solving processes into the compliance systems that govern our day-to-day work, so they would not be perceived as an additional burden. We also invested in skills development to ensure we could continue the improvement and sustain the benefits.

"Two turning points stood out, the first being an early breakthrough in the production of the Tree product. We took great satisfaction from solving a very complex problem with a new storage solution.

"The second turning point was what we called our 'Town Hall' event, held to communicate the progress of Odyssey to our staff and shareholders. The feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive and I felt very proud of everyone's contribution. The only regret is that I wish I had started Odyssey two years earlier."

Trading conditions have changed for all businesses since the project began, but what has been achieved so far puts the business in a much stronger position to achieve a major improvement in performance.

The Author
Jill Whinfrey
is marketing manager at S A Partners

To comment on this article, email

12th January 2011


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