Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Et tu J&J ?

What on earth is happening at Johnson & Johnson ?? It is one of the world’s foremost and respected companies. For 120 years it has commanded trust from consumers, employees, governments, investors – virtually everybody. It is a regular in the Top 5 of the World’s most admired companies – this year it is 4th. Consumers know it largely for its baby products – every mother trusts Johnson’s baby powder, or lotion or bath or whatever. If you are sick, you pop in a Tylenol; if your child is coughing you give her Benadryl. It is also a name totally trusted in hospitals – it produces a variety of medical equipments and supplies. Investors love J&J for the steady performance, and therefore the returns, it produces. It is one of the four companies left in the world which has a AAA rating. If there has to be one company that typifies all that’s good about the corporate world, it would be hard to find a better candidate than Johnson & Johnson.

And yet, I read with an increasing sense of disbelief of the troubles that are plaguing J&J. Today it just released its Q2 results and downgraded its yearly forecast of earnings. Not because of anything fundamentally happening in its markets. Because it has been facing a series of product recalls. It all pertains to one manufacturing plant in Fort Washington in the US. This has been going on now for more than a year – one recall after another, quality problems at the plant, scathing FDA reports and yet J&J allowed this problem to drag on for so long. Now it has shut the plant.

Remember this is the same company that created history in 1982. 9 people died in Chicago after consuming Tylenol – some criminal was tampering with the product on retail shelves and deliberately injecting cyanide into it. It had nothing to do with J&J – this was some crackpot criminal doing it. J&J immediately reacted by recalling 31 million bottles of capsules nationally. It was the first major product recall in the US – J&J said it didn’t care what the financial consequences were and whether it was responsible or not ; it was just not going to put any of its consumers at any risk. Full stop.

And now, look at what’s happening. Foot dragging on quality issues at that factory. Contesting FDA reports. A sorry saga of multiple recalls, drip fed over the last 18 months. Closing the factory only after a FDA inspection slammed it a full one year after the problems started surfacing.

This is a company which has some of the most outstanding quality systems in the world. I know this for a fact. In their famous “Credo”, which the company truly lives by, quality features in the second sentence. Every other manufacturing plant in the company probably has outstanding quality systems. Its just this one plant in Pennsylvania, that has been the cause of all the problems.

Just goes to show that when quality and safety are concerned, you can never, never, ever relax. Not even the greatest and the best are immune to falling. Next time when you take a safety audit as a pain in the backside or the ISO or CMM audit as a joke, pause and consider. This is probably what the plant management in the Pennsylvania plant did. Now look at the consequences.

I am now convinced that there has to be two clinically paranoid people in any company – the head of safety and the head of quality. Clinically certified as paranoid beyond redemption. Complete monsters who will believe nothing and crucify everybody. The most difficult and obstinate people who you can find on the planet. They will be the most valuable employees of the company.

All of you at J&J; please, please ,please, do not let down our trust. It's not just you, the company. You stand for all of the corporate world.