Expert Advice: Staying True to Your Mission Can Help Weather a Crisis

When COVID struck, Medtronic faced the familiar challenge of maintaining critical business operations. Inspired by its mission, however, the company not only continues to serve customers and patients but is playing an important role in combating the deadly virus.

Written by Michael O'Connor • 22 September 2020


Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash

COVID-19 has tested organizations in ways they never could have imagined even a short time ago. But sometimes the best way to respond to a challenge is to return to your roots and remind yourself why you’re in business to begin with.

That was the case in March 2020 at Medtronic, as we grappled with a dual challenge: how to continue serving customers and patients during the crisis while at the same time contributing to the global effort to defeat the deadly virus. The solution to these challenges came in the form of six words uttered six decades ago by our founder, Earl Bakken: alleviate pain, restore health, extend life.

Those words are at the heart of the Medtronic mission statement. They remind us to keep the patient at the center of everything we do. In this case, they served as the inspiration for our leaders—Omar Ishrack and Geoff Martha, our chairman and incoming CEO respectively—to develop a multi-pronged and, in some respects, ground-breaking response to the COVID crisis. But the clock was ticking. It was then up to internal project managers at Medtronic to implement this plan as quickly as possible.

Medtronic is in a unique position to help. As a long-established medical device company, we are deeply embedded in the global healthcare community, which we serve with a variety of life-saving products, including pacemakers, heart valves, brain stents, insulin pumps and ventilators.

Yes, ventilators—those critical devices that help COVID patients rest and breathe while their bodies fight the infection. Ventilators are in perilously short supply given the COVID crisis. So it made sense that they would be at the center of our response to the crisis. Our team quickly swung into action:

  1. We increased production of ventilators by five times at our plant in Galway, Ireland—from less than 200 per week to 1,000 per week.
  2. To support this increased production, we doubled the size of our ventilator workforce in Galway in a matter of weeks.
  3. We open-sourced the specifications of our PB560 ventilator, inviting companies from around the world to manufacture this product for their local markets.
  4. We partnered with Foxconn in the United States to manufacture 10,000 PB560 ventilators over the next year. We have similar manufacturing arrangements with Baylis Medical Company in Canada and Vingroup in Vietnam.
  5. We activated a feature on our high-end PB980 ventilator that allows healthcare workers to remotely monitor COVID patients—thus limiting their exposure to the virus and safeguarding their own health.

But ventilators aren’t the only arrow in our quiver. In addition to manufacturing ventilators, Medtronic has extensive 3-D printing capabilities across our business units. This has allowed us to begin manufacturing PPE—specifically face shields.

We also broke new ground with a partnership involving the University of Minnesota, United Health Group and Boston Scientific, a long-standing Medtronic competitor. The partnership has scaled up an idea from the university for using a robotic arm and a vemo bag to create an inexpensive ventilator. We provide technical support, and Boston Scientific manufactures the product, which United Healthcare, in turn, is supplying to 55 hospitals in South America.

We’re also tapping our employee base for ideas. We’re in the process now of sorting through hundreds of concepts that have been submitted in response to our Global Idea Challenge.

All these actions came together in a matter of days or weeks. Under normal circumstances, they might have taken months or even years. What was the secret from a project management perspective to accomplishing so much in so little time?

The pandemic, of course, provided extraordinary incentive. There’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. But, as I think back on that challenging time, there are certain best practices that stand out:

  1. Put one person in charge. One of the things we did early on was to appoint a vice president in our R&D operations to head the ventilator effort—our largest and most complex COVID undertaking. He brought the singular focus needed to make things happen quickly.
  2. Cultivate agility. Crises test our ability to pivot. Doubling our ventilator workforce in Ireland, for example, was no easy task. Ventilators are highly complex devices and require a trained workforce to produce. We couldn’t just hire people off the streets, so, instead, we moved associates from our cardiovascular unit to the ventilator unit. One week these employees were producing pacemakers and heart valves; the next week—after accelerated training—they were producing ventilators. Their ability to pivot proved essential.
  3. Assess risks carefully. A significant risk in ramping up ventilator production by five times is simply getting enough parts—particularly since a ventilator contains upwards of 1,700 components. We had to move quickly to nail down sources of supply, including tapping some unusual partners, such as Intel Corporation for circuit boards and SpaceX for a key subcomponent, the PSOL valve. Indeed, when Elon Musk heard that Medtronic was producing ventilators, he contacted us to see if he could help. His call came in on a Friday; by Monday, SpaceX was collaborating with Medtronic.
  4. Communicate. In fast-moving situations, communication is the lubricant that keeps the machinery running smoothly. We’ve established strong lines of communication across all these initiatives and are keeping internal and external stakeholders informed of our activities. Our leaders, for example, produce a weekly video series to keep employees updated about our COVID initiatives.

At the end of the day, what’s kept everyone focused under these extraordinarily difficult circumstances is the sense that what we’re doing matters—for patients, for healthcare workers, for Medtronic employees and for society. So, if there’s a final lesson in all this, it’s perhaps, simply, to do the right thing.

That’s why the Medtronic mission has played such an outsized role in our company’s COVID response and in all that we do as a company. Whatever the challenge, it all comes down to Earl Bakken’s six simple words: alleviate pain, restore health, extend life.

Michael OConnor headshot

Michael O'Connor
Director of Strategy and Project Management | Ph.D., Medtronic

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