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Company Innovations Can Spring From Within

By Jenny Callison, posted Aug 15, 2014
PPD employees check a system that supplies real-time data to aid clinical trials management, a tool born out of an idea from a company employee. (Photo c/o PPD)
When PPD was developing Preclarus, a new technology that would give its clinical researchers more complete information they needed to make more effective decisions, one of the company’s employees had an idea.

Niklas Morton, vice president of biostatistics programming for PPD, was at home, watching television and looking at real-time statistics on live soccer matches. He was intrigued at his ability to get this information.

Then, his daughter Eve wanted to order a book from Amazon.com. Visiting the e-retailer’s website, Morton saw that Amazon had real-time inventory information available for the book. The site also recommended a similar book and provided additional suggestions based on Amazon’s live interpretation of his book preferences.

Morton thought about PPD’s efforts to improve its information flow to clinical teams and reflected on his recent experiences with getting real-time data. He shared his insights with his associates, leading to the addition of real-time data capabilities to the new technology.

Thanks to Morton’s two “aha!” moments – and the contract research organization’s openness to new ideas – Preclarus’ dashboards were designed to offer “real-time, interactive visualizations and analytics that allow researchers to drill down into data for detailed information on the progress of clinical trials involving promising and potentially life-changing medical treatments,” company officials said.

PPD, headquartered in Wilmington, employs about 13,000 people and has operations all over the globe. Yet an observation and idea from one employee made a big difference in the development of a critical new tool.

It’s essential for companies to maintain a culture of innovation, no matter how large they are, said Kelli Davis, chief information officer at CastleBranch, which has seen rapid growth during the past couple of years.

Davis was a panelist at the N.C. Technology Association’s annual leadership conference in late July that addressed ways in which market-leading companies can remain innovative. In an interview, Davis said CastleBranch is constantly on the lookout for good ideas.

She said that the company’s continued growth depends on getting ideas for new products and services from clients and employees. The company has assembled a faculty advisor council made up of administrators from client programs. Their discussions identify issues they encounter and ideas for ways that CastleBranch’s current products and services could be enhanced to address those issues.

For example, Davis said that students in health care fields must provide proof of immunizations before they can begin the internships that are required before they finish college. Yet their immunization records stay with the admissions office of their university and are not available to them later when they are needed. So CastleBranch developed new immunization tracking software that follows the student through the entire higher education process.

CastleBranch also encourages its employees to think innovatively, so that new ideas emerge regularly from within the organization.

“We like to think we hire bright people; let’s allow them to be creative,” Davis said. “We also have a business development team that’s responsible for testing ideas, [to] see if an idea we’ve come up with has a market.”

Over the past few years, New Hanover Regional Medical Center has adopted lean methodology to help it increase its efficiencies and improve patient care, said Martha Harlan, NHRMC’s director of marketing and public relations.

Successful implementation of lean practices requires a constant flow of feedback and new ideas from everyone in the large, diverse organization.

“The lean technology business model is something our senior leadership is very committed to,” she said. “All of us have gone through training to determine how to bring better value to our patients: maximizing customer value while minimizing waste.”

NHRMC has implemented more than 500 projects so far, Harlan said.

“The really cool part is that these projects have been driven by staff, not leaders. It’s them saying, ‘We have a problem.’ Many times they have observed something to see what the workflow is. Then they monitor it and keep asking more questions,” she said.

Rather than being a top-down dictum that the NHRMC workforce is pressured to adopt, lean methodology is used by front-line employees to innovate within the organization, Harlan said.

By assessing and then streamlining the registration process for NHRMC’s rehab facility, the rehab team was able to create time for more patient treatments, Harlan said.

“I’m also proud of our shared care [program],” she said. “Nurses were saying they did not have enough time at the patient bedside because of interruptions during the day, so they got together a group of people to find a more innovative way of delivering care.”

By getting the observations and thoughts of everyone even remotely related to patient bedside care – pharmacists, clerical staff, housekeeping among them – the nurses came up with a care team model, Harlan said. Under the leadership of a registered nurse, a team of two nurses and two nurse assistants divide the work so that some cover the phone calls, paperwork and other tasks, leaving their teammates free to spend uninterrupted time tending to patient care.

“It’s all centered around the patients,” Harlan said.“Part of lean methodology is asking ‘why?’ many times. It makes you look deeper into a situation and get a different perspective. It builds motivated employees who are more invested in the organization because they are bringing ideas for solutions.”

GE Aviation is also sold on involving its employees in a process of continuous improvement at its Castle Hayne plant. As part of the plant’s commitment to lean methodology, the workforce meets regularly to discuss operations, said plant leader Jason Swinny.

Swinny also regularly does a safety walk around work stations on the shop floor with a group of hourly workers to identify opportunities for improvement.

Swinny said, as an example, that the stairs at one work station were reoriented, improving both safety and efficiency, since the new approach to the machines made more sense for the logical sequence of tasks at the station.

“Many times these changes improve safety, but they also improve productivity,” he said. “We get some of our best ideas on process improvements from our employees. They give us a good idea, then we provide the resources to make it happen.”
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