Managing supply chain unity through crisis amid flexible working environment

Oct. 17, 2023
Here’s how to blend in-house, hybrid, work-from-home options successfully

Geisinger Health is an integrated delivery network in northeastern Pennsylvania. I began my career there almost two decades ago and have been fortunate to be surrounded by amazing colleagues, coaches, and mentors along the way.

When I joined the Supply Chain department in the early 2000s, everyone knew everyone. If I didn’t know how to do a task, I stuck my head over the cubicle wall and asked for help. You learned by listening to others and jumped in to help if you overheard the challenges of the day. You knew who to contact to help move things forward—who will bring what dish during the celebration potlucks—and how to manage people's personalities and work styles. DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness – an acronym for personality profiling to help improve communication, productivity, and teamwork) assessments were posted on the cubicle wall so as you engaged with a colleague, you knew what to expect. We spent more time together with our work family than we did at home—with people from the community you lived in. 

It wasn’t often that I left the corporate office prior to my management roles. On an exciting day, you could walk down the hall to talk with Accounts Payable about an invoice mismatch. Or better yet, you receive a call from the mystery voice in Receiving about an overshipment. Visiting customers in the hospital or attending a meeting “on campus” felt like a big day out, and donating $1 to support the Children's Miracle Network allowed you to dress down on Fridays, which felt like a treat from the traditional business attire. 

Most of my career has been spent in the Strategic Sourcing and Procurement pillars of Supply Chain. As I ventured to a manager, and then up, my focus and strategy were centric to my area. I focused on savings targets, contract compliance and RFPs. My team had distinct KPIs and performance measurements which were reported independent of others. No one worked remotely outside of managing email while traveling. Somehow across the many teams within Supply Chain we got it all done, and during challenges, you could walk down the hall to the corner offices and together we would figure things out. 

Screeching halt to normalcy 

And then 2020 happened. We received notice that we had to move everyone home within 48 hours for “two weeks.” The team banded together and did IT assessments, checked connection speeds, worked through questions about phones, desks, and chairs, but we did it. Every morning we would check in—How are you doing? What’s new your way? “Stay safe” was the tagline at the end of every meeting. 

Two weeks became a month … then two … then more …. and the team began to adapt to their new working environment. As each day passed, making this hybrid work, a REAL thing started to fill people's minds. 

During the pandemic, our team's dependence upon each other was felt more than ever before. Everyone chipped in to help, regardless of title, role, or responsibility. Our mindset was: do what was necessary, and do what needed to be done for the patient and the community. Every critical order was treated with the utmost care. Receiving knew “full tracking” and “time of arrival” for each package containing PPE. We crossed each other’s lanes A LOT in a way we never had before. To stay connected we established daily huddles—both within our teams, but also within leadership. There was increased communication across all areas—the teams felt as though they were fighting the same fight, and doing whatever was needed to solve the problem of the day. 

Just getting it done 

As professionals in this sector, we know healthcare thrives on protocols and Supply Chain thrives on predictability. During the pandemic, we left behind any feeling of this. This experience we were having wasn’t an unthought-of thing. In 2015, Gen. Stanley McChrystal stated in Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, “Today’s rapidly changing world, marked by increased speed … means that organizations everywhere are now facing dizzying challenges, […]. These issues can be solved only by creating sustained organizational adaptability through the establishment of a team of teams.” 

This concept never felt truer than during those initial response months and it remains true today. 

The physical distance between team members has only increased as the pandemic served as a catalyst in transforming where and how we work. Many organizations have successfully transitioned staff away from traditional office work to a virtual world. 

This fundamental shift has had many perceived benefits, such as higher staff satisfaction, opportunities for expanded recruitment candidate pools from anywhere across the globe, and flexibility for much of our workforce to work anywhere. But it wasn’t without mixed reviews. The organization had fully embraced this hybrid work model, and the challenge for leadership now was to adapt to the new way we did our work. 

Not all Supply Chain roles can transition to a remote or hybrid environment, which created dynamics I have affectionally referred to this as “the haves and have-nots.” As leaders, we had to remind everyone in the supply chain team of why we are here—to support the patients and community we are so privileged to serve. Like many other organizations, we experienced impact during “The Great Resignation.”

During this time, we had team members explore other remote work, requiring us to recruit for vacant positions. This opportunity allowed us to pull from a national talent pool. We had great success in recruiting very talented staff who have added great value to the broader team dynamics. As we began allowing for remote work beyond our zip codes, we also faced challenges. For those who worked locally, a quick in-person chat was a car ride away. But for those who were a plane ride away, things like coaching and mentoring, training, and team building had to be handled differently than ever before. 

Team dynamics were disrupted and getting to know someone proved difficult during a scheduled 50-minute Microsoft Teams call. What was once a water-cooler chat, or a hallway consult, now became a text message or email communication lacking the personalization people were used to having. We also struggled with implied, or perceived, inflection within these communications. As a leadership team, we tackled this head-on and encouraged everyone to “assume best intentions”. We also encouraged a three-strike approach—if it requires more than three back-and-forth exchanges to gain clarity, staff were encouraged to pick up the phone and connect personally. 

As if these changes were not enough to manage, these changes amplified prior challenges within the Supply Chain team of creating connectivity and alignment amongst staff who work in the hospital and those who are working in the corporate office. Intentional communication, inclusion, and networking when a team member is not geographically close becomes a critical component of fostering a positive team environment. Additionally, thoughtfulness in ensuring an employee feels connected to the organizational and department mission becomes increasingly important for staff who may be states away. 

Redefining traditional vs. virtual 

We recognized it was important to help reduce potential friction by better defining our roles and processes. It sounds simple, but it was amazing to reflect on how many processes happened because of tribal knowledge sharing. Each leadership team identified key workflows—either individual or cross-functional—and began compiling Standard Operating Procedures. One way to do this is with a RACI Matrix, which outlines process steps and roles with the identification of roles for those Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed. We were able to quickly create accountability in our process steps in a new way, as well as have our onboarding training materials, which required a refresh in this new world. 

I’m again inspired by Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the quote, “Purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.” 

I believe our Supply Chain professionals are highly driven by their purpose in supporting our patients and communities. But I’d offer that having defined PROCESS helps to create the TRUST needed in a highly complex work environment. It sounds simple to say, “let’s change from this product to that,” but the number of process steps required to do so, and the entire nature of our business, where every element must be perfectly executed to succeed, can be daunting at times. 

While healthcare supply chain is often compared to manufacturing when discussing process work, there is an undeniable difference in our mission. We have the privilege and responsibility of ensuring our talented caregivers and colleagues have what they need when supporting members of our community on what is likely some of the most impactful days of their lives. As healthcare supply chain leaders, reminding our teams of this mission and connection to service is more than simply outlining the high-level process flow and how to use the ERP system. 

The work of fostering a high-performing and cohesive enterprise Supply Chain is a never-ending task of leaders. The influence of a hybrid work environment on this effort is an increasing consideration. As we focus on preparing our teams for the increasing demands and complexities of the future Supply Chain, creating cross-pillar experiences with a team-based approach to defining success can help a healthcare enterprise achieve its mission and vision.

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