Employee engagement is at the heart of Nemera’s success
Call it third shift, swing shift, or graveyard, in manufacturing companies the night shift is where you’re least likely to bump into someone from the executive ranks (barring catastrophe or a customer visit, of course). It’s an even rarer occurrence to have an exec who keeps an office in the factory so they can work graveyard a couple of nights a week.
For Ryan Wolf, Director of Operations for innovative medical device developer and manufacturer Nemera, it’s status quo.
Since 2015, Nemera has been growing into its vision to become the most patient-centric drug delivery device solutions company in the world. Each year, over a billion of their devices are sold to customers in 54 countries. According to the firm, their delivery solutions are used in a number of treatments, including “ophthalmic treatments for glaucoma and dry eye disease, ENT for allergic rhinitis and breakthrough cancer pain, parenteral for hormonal disorders such as diabetes and infertility, dermal for skin indications such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and hair loss, and inhalation notably to treat asthma and COPD.”
In 2021, Nemera hired Wolf to direct the operations of their suburban Chicago facility to accommodate a rapid growth push. In addition to two new facilities, the company was building a 50,000 square foot state-of-the-art clean room and preparing the Buffalo Grove facility to become the base of U.S. operations. A turnaround specialist, he’d been in similar situations before and was eager to dive in. “My pre-emptive notion was that a medical device company would have all their ducks in a row,” he said.
His presumption would be absolutely correct at any other time in modern manufacturing, but Covid-19 blew those expectations out of the water. During lockdown, Nemera was faced with a hiring crisis and Wolf found himself scrambling to fill a large number of vacancies. Finding new employees was only half the problem: the other battle Wolf and the tea would have to fight was retention.
“On top of this, starting at a new company with several coworkers working remotely brought unique trials,” he said. With Wolf’s gregarious nature, losing the ability to have conversations in person was a management style adjustment. “Not being able to see body language and facial expressions I felt was a big disadvantage. Injection molding wasn't the problem.”
An employee of a global plastics supplier for 23 years and director or operational excellence for five prior to joining Nemera, Wolf came in with deep knowledge of the technologies and processes of disposables manufacturing and green and black belts in Six Sigma. “I probably wasn't patient enough with the new people because I knew everything about everything as I was coming up because I started on the on the floor,” he said.
A holistic, hands-on approach to employee engagement
After the initial push to cope with the impact of the pandemic became routine, the Nemera Plant Leadership Team organized several lean events and brainstorming sessions to find ways to retain staff, adding plant leadership team members assigned with specific tasks and goals. “One group had employee engagement, which in my book is the No. 1 thing needed for success,” he stressed. “We had to make sure that we're recognizing employees properly and within budget.”
Each group reported weekly and biweekly, in some cases communicating about progress and challenges that they were working to overcome. “I've seen how not connecting with employees from entry level and up can do, and to put it lightly, it’s fatal,” he warned.
To avoid any communication gaps, Wolf and his group work the night shift. “We are here bright and early as always, but there is at least one night a week for myself and my four direct reports,” he said. “From supply chain to plant managers, technical managers, and maintenance, they are also required to be here at least once a week if not twice for night shift. But again, we’ve learned the value of connecting with employees.”
As a new plant manager early in his career he implemented his first such program after the company suffered the consequences of poor or absent communication. “We made a change where it needed to be and saw instant results in safety and quality, as well as in operational excellence and morale. People wanted to do good work once they felt that they were being paid attention to.”
In Wolf’s experience, safety quality, operational excellence in manufacturing and morale go hand in hand, and he sees working a portion of the night shift once or twice a week as a small sacrifice. “I'm here to drive performance that exceeds expectations.”
Regardless of the shift, every employee meeting starts with a safety focus and ends with positive recognition. The approach has been a resounding success, and even takes place during their daily plant leadership team meetings. “To be recognized in departmental meetings from HR to production to warehouse to maintenance, to purchasing, you name it, it's really cool.”
When it comes to upholding the company’s values and its mission to make a difference in people's lives, Nemera’s global leadership team walks the walk. “They hold true to their word and genuinely care about all the employees at every level as well as living the slogan ‘We put patients first,’” he said.
Wolf credits the company’s success and growth both locally and globally to a total team effort. We have the right people in the right places executing their responsibilities and more every day,” he added. “Ours is an impressive group and I definitely feel blessed to be a part of it, and part of implementing a growing business.
“The culture we have really lends itself to embracing and implementing change and thinking about it and learning. We have a good focus on change management and do that well, but also the culture here in what will now be U.S. operations, is that the people want to do well from top to bottom. That is a very pleasant atmosphere to work in.”