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Disaster Recovery Provides Critical Lessons

    Originally Published MDDI March 2003 NEWSTRENDS   Gregg Nighswonger

Originally Published MDDI March 2003

NEWSTRENDS

Gregg Nighswonger

Preplanning enabled West Pharmaceutical to quickly relocate production operations.

Most device makers have some form of disaster recovery plan. But such plans are seldom, if ever, put to the test by real events. 

On January 29, 2003, an explosion and fire at a Kinston, NC, plant challenged the ability of West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. (Lionville, PA) to put its own disaster plan into effect. As a result of the firm's efforts, production was moved to other sites around the globe and recovery is now well along. The company is approaching its preaccident production levels for most of its lines. With the addition of capacity at some of its facilities in the next few weeks, production may return to normal. 

West's recent experience provides a number of key lessons for other companies. Don McMillan, vice president of marketing for West, says, "How we were able to find places to relocate all of the production that was done in Kinston and get that back up and running in such a short period of time has all of us amazed." He explains that the firm actually had a plan in place when the fire happened—partly as a result of a prior disaster. "About three years ago, there was a big flood in Kinston, NC, after a hurricane had gone through. Our plant was shut down for two days, which we thought at that time was a big disaster," says McMillan. 

The event prompted the West operations staff to discuss proper responses to similar disasters. A formal document was developed that provided the basis for an emergency response protocol. Although it was not as detailed as it might have been, it did establish responsibilities—a key part of handling the fire. 

"As I look back on our success, one of the first things that we did was to set up teams focused on specific aspects of the recovery effort. For example, the operations folks and our engineers were the point people to work through such issues as getting access to the facility, the status of the finished goods inventory, and getting tooling out of the facility," McMillan says. Information from these teams formed the foundation of the detailed plans used to redistribute production throughout the firm's global network of facilities.

McMillan explains that West's network of plants has been critical to resuming production. He says the decision was made 10 or 15 years ago to adopt a strategy of global standardization. "We can use the same tooling in most cases at any of our facilities. We have the same types of presses, or very similar types of presses, on a global basis. We make the same products on a global basis and have very similar processes. So, 15 years ago when people made those decisions, it gave us the option to relocate production as soon as we were able to gain access to the Kinston facility." 

West has now relocated products that were formerly produced in Kinston into four facilities—one in the United Kingdom, one in Singapore, and two in the United States. The U.S. locations include Kearney, NE, and St. Petersburg, FL. 

"When we were given access to the facility after the fire, we were able to get the molds and the tooling out of our presses. Not the presses themselves, because there was debris in the way and the access just wasn't there," McMillan says. "Those tools were air shipped around the globe within days or even hours. And they were put into production in the receiving facilities—not immediately upon receipt, because they had to be tested and requalified—but certainly within days of being received."

Another element of West's recovery effort was to establish a clear management strategy. The key, says McMillan, was to have a person in charge of the company's global supply-chain management. "He was the point person for putting together the global production relocation plan. And he was in contact with the people in Kinston literally on an hour-by-hour basis as the fire was put out, and as the various regulatory bodies like the EPA and OSHA allowed us access to the facility," he explains. 

The company also views the Kinston employees as a valuable resource in both the short and long term. McMillan says that labor at the Kearny, NE, site was a concern. But West decided to temporarily relocate about 60 Kinston employees to the Nebraska plant. The employees work on a three-week rotation, returning to Kinston every fourth week. "Even if the Kinston employees only end up in Kearney for a few months, they'll still be there to help us train new employees and pass on the experience of making the exact products that they gained when those products were made in Kinston," McMillan says. 

Asked what other manufacturers might gain from West's handling of its difficulties, McMillan says there are three things. "Number one would be to think about standardization on a global or multiple-site basis. In other words, have that foundation and make those plans up front." 

His second recommendation is to identify key individuals who can be placed in charge of individual teams to manage the process. Says McMillan, "Having an outside person come in who can stay focused on the business, and on getting access to the facility, determine what assumptions can be made about access to molds, equipment, and various things, is critical." 

The third lesson to be learned is the importance of maintaining communication with customers. "We had high-level on-site meetings in Lionville, PA, with our major customers that were impacted," McMillan explains. "Within days of the meetings, we had daily conference calls with those customers." The nature of those calls now is essentially that of an update, he adds. "In the beginning they were two hours in length, now they're about fifteen minutes," says McMillan. "I think you really have to manage the internal communication loop and the external communication to your customer base. I think that was critical to our success."

Copyright ©2003 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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