If there were ever a time for improved efficiency to help a fast-moving company, it would be now for Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp.
With the West Columbia-based manufacturer of sterile respiratory medication churning out product at a record pace during the COVID-19 health crisis, owner and CEO Lou Kennedy is in search of every competitive advantage available.
“In spite of my Southern accent, I do move like a New Yorker, and this company goes at that pace,” she said. “It’s a testament to the team here that everybody’s running on high-test, premium unleaded, and keeping up.”
The most recent example came when nine Nephron employees achieved Lean Six Sigma green belt certification after completing courses at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. Six Sigma or lean manufacturing, pioneered by the likes of Henry Ford and famously implemented by Toyota in the years following World War II, is a systematic method aimed at reducing waste and variation to improve production quality and efficiency.
Kennedy had already experienced the benefits of workers trained in the system before she teamed up with the Moore School’s certification program, which combines real-world case studies and applied exercises in both online and in-person instruction.
“I’d already learned to hire students that are a part of that global supply chain operations management track in the Moore School of Business,” Kennedy said. “I love those kids because they’re one of the rarest types. They walk in on day one and can solve a problem or begin to solve a problem.”
Kennedy first had conversations about extending the training to more of Nephron’s workforce with USC around two years ago, she said. Several months later, she heard back from Darla Moore lecturer Pearse Gaffney and clinical associate professor Giuliano Marodin, who had designed a curriculum focused on creating organizational change through project management, communication and technical process improvement.
Nephron’s inaugural nine-person class divided into two teams charged with identifying and solving problems. The groups came up with methods to improve productivity in the company’s automated syringe-filling process and to reduce inventory levels to create additional warehouse space and cash flow opportunities.
“They were able to prove that we carry too much inventory,” Kennedy said. “They did all these algorithms to say we don’t need 90 days on hand. We need 45 days.”
The combined ideas, when fully implemented, will save Nephron $2 million, she said.
“I’m paying $5,000 per person, so basically it was a $50,000 expenditure. And you think, well, that’s a lot of money to invest,” Kennedy said. “I feel like it’s already paid back.”
The timing of such improvements is especially fortuitous for a company that announced a $215.8 million expansion in July as demand for its inhalation solutions and suspension products, including those used to treat respiratory distress symptoms associated with COVID-19, soars. In March, Nephron saw a 141% increase in its monthly production of inhalation solutions, shipping 193 million doses instead of its standard 80 million.
The demand has not abated, Kennedy said. Nephron is currently running all 12 of its production lines, she said, and adding new packaging lines and quality efficiency equipment.
“It can’t be a better time, because we’re building a 200,000-square-foot warehouse as we speak,” Kennedy said. “So all of this is in line to be adapted from the day that place opens.”
The expansion, expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2021, will also add new offices and vaccine production spaces at Nephron’s campus in Saxe-Gotha Industrial Park.
“When I announced this warehouse expansion, we also talked about a building down the street called the Kennedy Innovation Center,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to be tenants of the first 80,000 square feet, and then the rest of it will be inventory that can be marked by commerce (departments), whether Lexington County or state. It doesn’t matter to me. Just having inventory was something they needed, and it’s in an opportunity zone, which makes it cool, too.”
The first pieces of equipment for Nephron’s expansion arrived last week, Kennedy said, and “the minute I get a roof (in place), we can go ahead and move it into that building. It’s real exciting stuff going on around here.”
Nephron is also performing and processing COVID-19 tests through its on-site Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified lab. As a stream of people seeking tests drive through Nephron’s gates each day, the company continues to develop technological innovations including same-day results.
“We made it so that instead of filling out a piece of paper like old school you can text in your name, date of birth and all that, and it’s all HIPAA-protected and you can get your results back via text,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been able to write some software to do some really cool stuff and it’s made it less labor-intensive. We can do both saliva and PCR nose-swabbing test processing here.
“We’re actively going out and looking for new people and businesses. We’ve added some new customers, new businesses. We’re still doing Dominion Energy. We did Mid-Carolina (Electric) Co-op. What I’d love to do is pick up the Amazon (fulfillment center) business. That would be steady all day, every day, and they’re just next door, so that makes it logistically easy.”
The Lean Six Sigma training, with practical applications for increasing efficiency at a critical time, is also helping to streamline everything going on at Nephron — in addition to making its CEO proud.
“I watched these folks that were in the class, and you could just see them. The wheels were turning and they had already started taking ideas from their classroom during the course of the six or more months that it took to do the class into their own areas to drive extra types of efficiencies,” Kennedy said. “I asked each of them to address anything in their own area, and every one of them said, ‘Oh, I learned during this part of our class that we could do x, y and z,’ and they adopted it.”
The personal growth Kennedy witnessed, along with professional development, has her ready to enroll a second class.
“Some of these people are fairly shy. Part of getting the green belt is they all have to stand up and present,” she said. “There were microbiologists that were never up in front of a crowd. They all dressed in their best outfits and stood up to present. It was a variety of different ages. One was from production. One was from inventory. There were microbiologists and the people from the training department.
“We’re going to start the next class right away.”
The Nephron employees who achieved green belt certification are: