A Titanic Mix-Up at Emergent

We’ve all seen by now the latest NYT reporting about Emergent and the mix-up that cost between 13 and 15 million doses of the J&J Covid-19 vaccine. As a human performance practitioner, my hair lit on fire when reading this statement:

“An investigation is now underway, but federal and former company officials suspect the lot was tainted because an employee moved from AstraZeneca’s section of the plant to Johnson & Johnson’s without showering and taking other precautions.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Sharon LaFraniere, and Chris Hamby, “Top Official Warned That Covid Vaccine Plant Had to Be ‘Monitored Closely’”, The New York Times

Thankfully, I’m okay — I hadn’t much hair to lose — but this “old-view” framing of the human as the source of all problems is so outdated and ignorant of a rich constellation of science and application available in the world of human performance. It’s been heartening though to see many others writing about it, so I won’t bore you with another similar analysis.

Instead, I wanted to highlight several other reports (here, here, and here) that document wide-spread compliance issues at this Emergent plant, and others, largely due to inadequate staffing and training, and an incredibly toxic company culture. It’s this culture piece that I wanted to dissect for a minute.

I used to believe the myth that company culture was like the Titanic — slow to move, hard to turn, etc. But it’s just that, a myth. The simple truth is that leaders create culture — with their presence, their words, their integrity, and their actions — and it’s created every day, not in some far-off time. Thinking of company culture this way moves the immediacy of your responsibility to act to right now, instead of giving you the illusion of having lots of time with which to make changes.

The senior manufacturing supervisor saying “Do you want me to make drugs or fix issues? I don’t have time to do both” tells you all you need to know about the behaviors that leaders are influencing and producing in that workforce, every day, with what they say and do. The priority is obvious (and it’s not quality).

To be clear, I’m not judging the decisions that these supervisors and workers feel have to be made — they’re forced to make tradeoffs as they try to hold together an imperfect patchwork of systems, processes, tools, tasks, and relationships in order to deliver the product that ultimately pays their salaries. They’re just victims of poor company culture and leadership, victims of the system.


3 thoughts on “A Titanic Mix-Up at Emergent

    1. So great to be here, thanks for giving me the push I needed! Some folks have a hard time with the systems thinking approach and perspective. It’s great trying to communicate about it though because those “light bulb” moments when folks just get it are incredible.

      Liked by 1 person

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