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Optimizing Curiosity

Sheila Duggan, an Operational Excellence Leader at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in Cork, Ireland, focuses on continuous improvement in our manufacturing and business processes.

We spoke with her about the role of curiosity in her and the OpEx team’s work.

Curiosity: Sheila, you’ve been with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany for seven years. Please tell us what you do.

Sheila: In Cork, we have about 700 people working in three manufacturing and support operations. I am in Operational Excellence—or OpEx. Our role is to drive improvements and efficiencies within our processes. What all our colleagues do day-to-day is ensure that we provide our customers with the best service and deliver quality, cost-effective products when and where they need them.

Part of what we do is training and awareness in Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques (designed to improve processes and create more customer value by eliminating waste). We find it very useful in supporting the manufacturing operation and in generating a continuous improvement culture within the organization.

A big focus for us day-to-day is identifying opportunities for improvement or problem solving. Inevitably challenges will arise within manufacturing or in the business processes which may impact customer service or product quality or non-value add activities.

An important part of identifying opportunities or dealing with challenges or problem solving is to take a step back from the day-to-day work to allow the team to be more creative. We try to get the right people to identify the opportunity or tackle a problem so that we can find the right solution. The team selected brings all the right attributes, behaviors, curiosity and creativity into the environment to make sure we maximize the result.

Creating the Right Environment

Curiosity: Where does curiosity fit into that in the tactical sense?

Sheila: We focus on people and the environment. We try to generate an interactive environment and get away from bringing everybody into the typical conference room environment where one person is centered at the top of the room and the rest of the people are sitting down looking to that one person. 

We’ll go directly to the manufacturing area, to a different area of the site, or off site. We’ll work on the manufacturing floor beside the equipment and machines. Or we’ll go to an environment where we have set up visual information (e.g. trends, timelines, data, etc.) so that we are stimulating people more—not with just verbal communication and PowerPoint decks. We get people out of chairs so they are standing and interacting with each other and the visuals and data. Some people work better with data; others work better with visual stimulations. We try to bring all of that together to get the most out of the group.

We make sure that we have the right balance of people in that environment. It’s not just having the technical experts or the people who know the area well. One of the modules OpEx teaches is about optimum team selection, based on the Belbin team roles.

There are three different categories of people: the good thinkers, people who are more prone to take action, and people who are more about, “Who’s going to do the work? How harmonized can we get the work done together?” They are more diplomatic. It’s important to get the balance right across the three categories so we don’t just have all thinkers in the room because then we won’t get the action needed afterward to get it done.

Within the thinking category there’s a role known as „the plant.” This is the creative person. Often it can be someone who is not involved in the area and is impartial. With their distance from the situation, they can ask the right questions or have the innovative ideas that we haven’t thought of because we’re so close to what’s happening.

  A brick wall with the bright outlines of a door   A brick wall with the bright outlines of a door

Curious Employees

Curiosity: When you think of an ideal employee or team member, does curiosity figure into that?

Sheila: It does. Our focus is identifying where the waste is in all of our processes. Every day we have hundreds of people who come to work and if we’re not tapping into their knowledge, intellect, their creativity, their brains... if we’re not asking them how to make things better and to contribute to our continuous improvement culture, we see that as a waste. Sometimes being creative isn’t coming up with a new, innovative product, it’s coming up with a simpler way to complete a task or process or a different way of addressing a challenge or problem.

Curiosity: Creativity in problem solving is one aspect of how we measure curiosity. There are four dimensions. They are—in addition to creativity in problem solving—inquisitiveness, openness to other ideas, and distress tolerance. The last one, distress tolerance, is of a mix of perseverance and risk and the ability to be flexible and adaptable. What are your thoughts about the dimensions? Are they qualities you look for in your team?

Sheila: It’s very interesting, because I haven’t heard of curiosity being broken down into different categories before. But just as you talk about them, I already can visualize where we see that in the teams here, in the different people. So, yes—because there are different situations where we need those qualities—we search them out in people. 

For example, I see distress tolerance in the more complex, long-running projects that have challenges along the way. That’s where you need those people on the team or at the helm to steer the project where it needs to get to.

Openness is very important for where there is change management. If we’re targeting what’s a perceived improvement, but what is ultimately a significant change in an area, we tap into the people who display those attributes up front—the openness—to help understand the need for change and support the change management required.

Similarly, for inquisitiveness, it is absolutely a fundamental trait of our people here to continue to look for the opportunities for improvement in what we do day to day. They keep questioning “why...” and saying “there must be a better way...” This is what generates that culture of continuous improvement.

An Appetite for Continuous Improvement

Curiosity: The last two questions are a bit broader. First, based on your work experience, what do you think is the biggest thing that differentiates Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany? If you’re talking with someone outside of the company, what would you say sets Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany apart?

Sheila: I would say it is the attitude and the appetite for continuous improvement—the whole energy around that. There’s been a lot of change in our organization over the last five to eight years and I think we’ve moved through those change curves and we’ve improved as we’ve moved along. The culture of continuous improvement, that appetite to get involved and to strive for continuous improvement, it’s part of the day-to-day business here.

Curiosity: Why does it make sense for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, as an organization, to invest in an exploration of curiosity?

Sheila: In everything that we do, if we’re not curious, we’re not opening our minds to what is more than the limitations of what we believe. Be it problem-solving or opportunities or new products or innovative ways of doing things, we absolutely have to have curiosity because that’s the way we move forward and stay a step ahead.

We have these 700 minds that come into work every day and if they leave at the end of the day without contributing their ideas and asking the right questions and getting around the opportunities and the problems that we have, that’s a huge gap. For us to keep moving forward, I think we need to be asking the right questions. We need to allow people to ask the right questions, and give them an environment to do that. That’s how we continue to be successful. 

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