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Interview with Prof. Friedli Operational Excellence – to Develop a Company into a Learning Organization

| Editor: Tobias Hüser

To gain deeper insights into the “Journey to Excellence“ as well as to build up a professionally managed information and data exchange platform for chosen pharmaceutical companies, Prof. Dr. Thomas Friedli of the University of St.Gallen is responsible for establishing an Operational Excellence (OPEX) Research Group at the University. In an interview, Friedli explains the challenges and advantages of Operational Excellence.

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“For us Operational Excellence means to develop a company into a continuously learning organization“, says Prof. Dr. Thomas Friedli, Director of the Institute of Technology Management at the University of St. Gallen.
“For us Operational Excellence means to develop a company into a continuously learning organization“, says Prof. Dr. Thomas Friedli, Director of the Institute of Technology Management at the University of St. Gallen.
(Picture: University of St. Gallen)

Question: As director of the division of Production Management at the University of St.Gallen, could you briefly explain what aspects/fields does your division work on? What direct application has your research on the world of business?

Friedli: We currently work in four research groups. Generally said we try to help manufacturing companies to overcome some of the challenges in today's global business landscape. One group deals with global production optimization from a true network perspective, another deals with complexity management, the third deals with the professionalization of the service business in manufacturing companies and the fourth is dedicated to Operational Excellence with a focus on Pharma. All of our research activities are conducted in close collaboration with industrial companies so I can say that we have a direct impact on business.

Moreover, you are an expert in Operational Excellence (Opex). How would you define Opex nowadays? What are the main challenges that the pharmaceutical industry is facing in this area?

Friedli: For us Operational Excellence means to develop a company into a continuously learning organization. Excellence for us is the balanced management of cost, time and quality and we always look at this from a system perspective taking into consideration not only tools but also behavioral and organizational aspects.

Opex is a journey that will never end and this is the challenge. You have to keep up the momentum day after day, month after month, year after year. It is a real leadership task and the hardest thing is to overcome the cultural barriers.

In your opinion, which are the Success Factors in Striving for Operational Excellence?

Friedli: There are several of them. Like in many other strategic programs it is mandatory to have the top management support. You have to have the right people as leaders and as specialists. A good organization is needed as well as a true excellence understanding. A pure cost improvement focus can kill these programs.

Is Operational Excellence sufficiently widespread and understood? Which areas of this specialty would you highlight for being particularly relevant for the pharmaceutical process?

Friedli: We often see that it takes time to get the buy in and the understanding of everybody but that should be the objective. Today in more advanced companies some efforts are aimed at the top managers to give them enough understanding to support the needed activities. Besides of this more and more functions get involved in Opex.

We currently see more and more quality organizations dealing with Opex as well. We have seen Opex activities in clinical trials and some have even rolled it out to R&D. At the end of the day Opex has to become the way how you do your daily work that is the only way to sustainably implement it.

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