Ali Burns, of Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics Manufacturing, reflects on his experience coordinating efforts to support the nationwide bid to produce ventilators for the NHS.
If you’d told me in late 2019 that three months into 2020, I’d be working with F1 teams and global aerospace leaders in order to help the UK mass-produce ventilators, I wouldn’t have believed you.
In fact, there were times at the start of the Ventilator Challenge that I truly thought to myself, how are we ever going to scale up production from single figures to tens of thousands in just a matter of weeks?
That was the biggest challenge for me – a consortium of world-class manufacturers, all of whom had little to no experience in the production of medical-grade equipment. Bringing all of the disparate parts of the equation together was tough but we did it.
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We manufactured almost 13,500 ventilators by leaving egos and logos at the door and working purely on a merit basis. We can all look back at this and take immense pride in what we achieved.
From the start
The first conversation I had regarding ventilators was in early March when Brian Holliday, Managing Director of Siemens Digital Industries, rang me.
Brian said; ‘Ali, I’m looking to see how we as Siemens can support the consortium. I’ve been on a call with the Prime Minister and he was very clear that based on a recent chat with the Italian PM, he didn’t want to see what had happened there happen in the UK. We must be able to do something, I’m just not sure there’s much we can do.’
It didn’t take me long to reassure Brian that this was right in our sweet spot. Medical devices are what we do every day and, supported by the might of the entire Siemens UK operation, I believed we could really make a difference.
I then received a call from Dick Elsy, Chief Executive of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult and Head of the Ventilator Challenge. He set out the parameters of the working structures and the exec team that had been assembled, with representatives from Ford, Airbus, McLaren, Smiths Medical, GKN and various others.
A batch of finished ventilators prior to delivery into the NHS. Image: VentilatorChallengeUK
Core to Siemens Healthineers’ involvement was our expertise around medical device regulation, specifically ISO 13485 QMS for Medical Devices, part of ISO 9001. Working to those strict parameters was something the automotive and aerospace players were unaccustomed to. I knew that’s where we could play a key role.
Once the exec team was sat around the table the breadth of what Siemens could offer the consortium, such as our digital twin capabilities, became apparent and we quickly assembled a team of 100 experts from across Siemens in the UK.
I’ve been astounded by the hours people committed to this endeavour. In the early days, team members and I were on calls at unsociable hours, often at the drop of a hat, to talk through what needed to happen, when and by whom. Many worked through the night to ensure production lines were ready and suppliers were on board.
What I saw on the Ventilator Challenge was truly special; I experience similar things at Siemens every day but to see it in the consortium was amazing, everyone pulling in the same direction with a real can-do attitude.
Inside AMRC Cymru. Image: VCUK
If you get a group of engineers together and cut out the red tape, we are going to problem-solve. The great thing about the exec team was that we leant on each other, recognising our individual strengths.
If it was medical devices or digitalising process, it was Siemens. If it was rapid prototyping, it was the F1 teams. Nobody ever had their ego bruised or felt put out when their idea wasn’t taken forward. The focus was on the best outcome and how we could make that happen.
At the front
Much of my leadership style comes from spending almost 25 years in the Army Reserves. You’re tested under pressure in the military.
You provide people with a clear direction, that’s what we want to achieve, but you don’t tell them how to get there. You let them use their own empowerment to reach the goal. You’re there to guide and coach, and if needed you get in and get the job done with them.
All those elements naturally fed into what the Ventilator Challenge was doing. I never asked anyone to do a 3:00am phone call if I wouldn’t do it myself… and believe me, there were a few.
Life-saving ventilators being produced at AMRC Cymru, the first High Value Manufacturing Catapult location opened in Wales. Image: HVMC
Something I’ve always believed, whether at work or in the army, is that no decision is worse than a bad decision. Working on the Ventilator Challenge project, I quickly realised the speed at which we could make decisions and act on them.
It was derestricted management and for the large part, the leadership team got out of the way. When you derestrict decision-making like this you can move much more quickly. Pair that with such a clearly defined common goal and you have a highly effective team.
As leaders, we cast long shadows into our businesses and impact the behaviours of our people. If we want to work collaboratively and keep these relationships, it starts with us. We have to be humble and keep learning.
Every ventilator will save multiple lives, and the importance of what the team has done can’t be stressed enough.
All I have is gratitude for the teams. No one ever moaned or dragged their heels and they’ve all taken on a huge amount of extra work in addition to their day jobs. I’m extremely proud to have been part of it all.