We’ve beaten lockdown by becoming a community of people04 June 2020
Conversation with Stefano Ferrazzi, Head of Supply Chain & S&OP at IBSA
How to deal with a crisis like this Coronavirus, how to manage the lockdown that the world has experienced in the last three months and how to reorganise a company overnight to maintain production continuity without endangering employees’ health. These are the questions that we all had to respond to in February when Europe and the world found themselves faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Answering today, with hindsight, with the possibility of analysing facts and consequences and with the relative calm that comes with awareness is difficult in itself. Responding in real time, at the first onset of problems or when the problems to come could only be imagined was almost impossible.
“Yet we did it. It all started on 21 February, when news arrived of the outbreak in Codogno, in Lombardy. I think that day is etched in all of our memories. We had a full warehouse very close to Codogno. A decision had recently been made to close the ‘twin’ warehouse, which is located near Rome. We had already started the paperwork for the divestiture, but that morning an employee of mine came up with the idea of taking all the goods that were in Codogno and getting them out as soon as possible, for fear that it would become a red zone. Not long after that it did become a red zone, but our products were already on their way to Rome. We stopped the closure of the other warehouse. That’s what saved us from day one.” Stefano Ferrazzi, Head of Supply Chain & S&OP at IBSA, looks back at that time.
"After Codogno came 23 February. It was a Sunday morning. My boss called me. In ten years, he had never called me on a Sunday morning. He said: we’re in an emergency situation and the Supply Chain will be the first line’. From that moment on, there are only fragments, memories, half sentences to say about days when ‘sleeping, eating, going home, respecting shifts and tasks were all quite complicated. We all did everything we could. I remember one day asking to be taught how to drive the forklift in the warehouse. It could have helped and I wanted to be able to. If it had become necessary, I’d have driven it."
The reason behind such efforts to keep all production sites and the product distribution chain open is due to the very nature of IBSA: ensuring therapeutic continuity for patients. Those who are undergoing specific treatment regimens cannot stop because the world is in lockdown. This would mean adding one health emergency on top of another and this, for those working in medicine, is the worst possible outcome.
"Our patients should be able to find the drugs they have been prescribed no matter the circumstances and wherever they are."
Not to mention hospital drugs or medical supplies needed for the production of other drugs. Of all the supply chains, the pharmaceutical supply chain is perhaps the most strategic. This is why IBSA made every possible effort to ensure continuity, as well as the safety of its employees.
What formula was it that allowed IBSA to manage the crisis and ensure therapeutic continuity for patients?
“First and foremost, it was decided to immediately set up a crisis management action group. Fifteen members in semi-permanent meeting, initially in-person and then via teleconference, when the physical distancing order was triggered. And then the team. I don’t remember an idea that didn’t come from the team or from members of the action group. Everyone tried their hardest to meet the situation head on and try to imagine the issues before they even arrived to give us all more time to resolve them. Everything happened in those days. We had moments in which we risked having to halt work, not because we were in need of materials, but because we couldn’t find face masks, gloves and gowns (IBSA production never actually stopped).
The first step was to think of the usual things: buying gloves, disinfectant soaps, sprays...
One day, towards the beginning of the crisis, before everything closed, I remember some action group members going to IKEA to buy disinfectant sprays. Imagine the scene, we’re talking here about the company managers, who we’re used to seeing in a very different context.
I think the thing that will stay with me most from this period is the spirit with which we overcame each and every hurdle. United, all together.
A community was created, going far beyond a relationship between colleagues. There were days when people had to eat together in meeting rooms (2-3 people sat apart) with food they’d brought in from home because everything was closed...”
How did you find living in lockdown conditions, how did you feel and what were the most difficult decisions to make?
“Now lots of people are writing and talking about three main stages of lockdown, but doing it now, after the fact, is almost an academic exercise. In reality, our aim from day one was to contain the impact. To start with, no-one could imagine what might happen next. Then there was the stage of passing through the tunnel, during which the key word was ‘total instability’.
Each day we had to respond to decisions made not just by one government, but by two: the Italian one and the Swiss one. IBSA is located in Lugano, but the relationship with the Italian headquarters and with Lodi, where the production centres closest to headquarters are found, is daily, physical. One day, for example, it took four hours to move 400 metres through customs. That was the first day of self-certification. I remember we were in line and we had to get out of the cars one by one to sign the document and cross the border.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
I think the time in the middle was one of the hardest. During that time, the support from IBSA’s people was fundamental, because our duty was to ensure production and everything that revolves around it could continue. Then came remote working, the need to rethink the way the entire company operates, deciding who was able to work from home and who needed to be on site.
Staff functions, for example, can work effectively remotely, but those who work in the labs or the warehouses and in production cannot, they need to be physically on site.
At that juncture it was Luca Crippa’s idea that saved us, (Managing Director of IBSA Italy). It was him who came up with idea of splitting departments into strategic and ‘crisis’ to start with.
That’s what objectively saved us: sensing that the departments, in terms of remote working, needed to be treated differently from each other.”
What will be left of the experiences from phase 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic?
“The feelings, the fear, not just of the disease, but of everything that could have happened and luckily didn’t come to pass. But also a certainty; the certainty of having built something unique, something special, something solid. By that I mean the relationships between people and the ability to react at times of extreme difficulty.
Let me explain: in what was already a serious situation, we also had other issues, which would have been quite normal in a production context, but which fell during an already difficult time. In spite of everything, we found that productivity levels were very high, sometimes even higher than in previous years. It was as if each of us was working stronger and better. Everyone, without exception.
I think this is due in part to being fortunate to work for a company like ours, which throughout lockdown never made us feel as if we were alone. The ‘normal’ things, including the certainty of having a job, never faltered, which gave us all a lot of courage.
IBSA really did do everything to make sure we felt like part of something unique, something special.
We’ve been lucky, because together we managed to do it. That’s it, that’s what I’ll take away from the COVID-19 experience: the sensation of having managed to do it. As an individual, of course, but also within a community that fought and, insofar as possible, won.”