One Year Later: The Head of Johnson & Johnson China Looks Back on What We've Learned From the Pandemic—and How It Can Help Shape the Future
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ohnson & Johnson has more than 130,000 employees across the globe—including, since 1985, China.
And one of the company's top leaders there for more than 15 years has been Will Song. As Chairman of Johnson & Johnson China and President of Johnson & Johnson Medical China, he was in charge when the novel coronavirus, which would come to be known as COVID-19, sent the city of Wuhan into lockdown, before being declared a pandemic a year ago this week by the World Health Organization.
We asked Song to share his unique perspective as someone who witnessed the early days of the health crisis—and as a leader who has learned to innovate in new ways to help guide his company through such a unique time in history.
It's been about a year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. How do you look back on that time now?
Will Song: Last year was a long year.
When COVID-19 first hit China back in January, right around the Spring Festival—the most important holiday in the country—we faced tremendous changes and challenges. It really felt like a U-turn, when the nation had to step out of joy to combat the virus all of a sudden.
Our leadership team and all our staff worked day and night in the early days of the pandemic working out emergency response plans, keeping operations of our sites running smoothly and ensuring continued delivery of our product supply to customers and patients who were relying on us.
During that time, I was too busy to have my regular weekly call with my mum. She didn’t understand why I was so busy, when all the factories were closed during the lockdown. When I told her all we were doing—like finding every means possible to secure and deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline healthcare workers—she finally understood my packed schedule.
Nobody could say, 'I know how to handle this.' Nobody. So the top leaders at Johnson & Johnson quickly formed a very united team. We didn’t have a playbook or a template we could follow. The most powerful thing we had was our company mission statement, known as Our Credo. It tells us that our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. So I realized that we should always use it as our North Star, especially during a difficult situation.
For example, we heard that communities in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, were seeing shortages of hand sanitizer at the beginning of the outbreak. Prior to the pandemic, BAND-AID® brand hand sanitizers were manufactured in one of our supply chain plants in China to export to Southeast Asia markets, but they were not available for sale in the China market. So our leaders in Asia Pacific made a quick decision to donate all of the 48,000 bottles in stock to Wuhan.
What other tools did you pick up during this time as a leader?
In the past, it's been said that Johnson & Johnson is a juggernaut, that our size made it difficult for us to move quickly to act.
But our global crisis management team responded swiftly to the pandemic. The Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies team, for example, quickly reallocated resources to China to help us recover. So it turns out that we do have organizational agility.
That’s partly why our business has recovered so fast. I think that, moving forward, we definitely need to retain that sense of quickness. The pandemic forced us to innovate and become more open-minded and willing to try new things.
During the lockdown, many surgical procedures were halted in China, except for emergency room and obstetric operations. Our medical devices team was quick to cater to the need for healthcare professionals to keep improving their skills virtually, so our Ethicon team set up an online platform where more than 70 public hospitals in China broadcast more than 6,000 surgeries that were watched by doctors from 12,000 hospitals across the country over a few months' time.
Today, domestic travel, small-sized, in-person meetings and hospital visits have resumed. But while COVID-19 is broadly under control in China, we are still adapting to new ways of working and life under the new normal. This year, cases in some major cities, like Shanghai, have reinforced the fact that the virus is very difficult to eliminate, and we should never be caught off-guard.
As company leaders, the priority for us is to help our staff stay alert and maintain the new normal basics of disinfection, mask-wearing, density control and so on. Most importantly, we should always keep employees well-informed and engaged through timely and easy-to-access communications.
At the beginning of the outbreak, our communications team collaborated with our IT team to quickly create an innovative health tracking system that all colleagues in China could use to report their health conditions and let us all know whether they were OK.
And to help support communications across global sites during the pandemic, the DePuy Synthes global supply chain rolled out the use of digital smart glasses designed to facilitate remote, hands-free communications known as "see what I see." The plant team in Suzhou helped show fellow colleagues at a plant in Massachusetts how to adopt the technology.
Johnson & Johnson is at the forefront of leveraging new technologies, like AI and data science. In our Consumer Health sector, for example, we’ve successfully launched new Listerine® mouthwash flavors in China based on a 'consumer-to-manufacturer' model. We believe this could become a global model for addressing consumer needs with more personalized products.ShareDid you like this story? Click the heart to show your love.
What innovations are you looking forward to working on in the months to come, based on your learnings from the past year?
We plan to continue to enhance our digital surgery solutions, for one, aiming to accelerate the commercial launches of Johnson & Johnson’s digital surgery systems in China, such as Monarch, a first-of-its-kind robotic technology for use in diagnostic and therapeutic bronchoscopic procedures, and VELYS, a platform of connected digital surgery technologies designed to elevate the orthopaedic experience for patients, surgeons and care teams.
We’ll also be looking for ways to use digital tools to help physicians get the training they need, and patients the care they need, in this new time.
Even now, patients travel less. Before, patients in smaller cities would come to big cities, like Shanghai or Beijing, to have operations. Now they aren't able to travel as freely as they did before, and when they are hospitalized in big city hospitals, sometimes only one family member is allowed to visit them.
In some cases, they also have to get a coronavirus test called a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) beforehand. This isn’t very convenient for most people, so they often have to stay in their hometown for surgery, where there may not be enough skilled surgeons.
In response to this, we quickly built up online training and offered professional education capabilities to train surgeons in smaller cities and help them advance their skill sets. We also plan to partner with e-consulting platforms to provide a convenient channel for patients to find the best doctors and hospitals and thereby ensure the best treatment.
I believe Johnson & Johnson is at the forefront of leveraging new technologies, like AI and data science. In our Consumer Health sector, for example, we’ve successfully launched new Listerine® mouthwash flavors in China based on a “consumer-to-manufacturer” model, in which we gained consumer insights from big data to produce flavors that suit the particular needs of Chinese consumers. We believe this could become a global model for addressing consumer needs with more personalized products.
Have your experiences in China had any other noteworthy global applications?
I think one of the impacts of the pandemic on the China organization is that we have become even more connected to the global organization.
Because China was the first into the pandemic, first out of the pandemic and the first to recover, company leaders are reviewing our business recovery models and pandemic control efforts so they can apply them to other markets.
In the past, we did a lot of global travel. Now, we’re learning that we can achieve similar results without as much of this. So I do see a lasting shift in this regard as people get more connected online, which can be just as effective.
That said, I still see the value of in-person interactions. When the lockdown was lifted in China, our customers were so eager to see our people. Because those kind of personal emotions, feelings, interactions and engagements are very important. If you want to see your customers or you want to see how they work, you have to be on site.
Is that why you went to visit with Johnson & Johnson employees in Wuhan last fall?
Yes. Usually, we stay in Shanghai for our monthly board meeting, but we decided to have it in Wuhan in October. We also hosted a town hall with a live broadcast to the entire Johnson & Johnson Medical China team across the country.
We wanted to show our gratitude, compassion and support for what our colleagues based in Wuhan went through at the beginning of the pandemic, when they couldn’t leave their homes and the virus was spreading. When we talked to them firsthand, it made us even more deeply appreciate of what they have gone through.
We try to use what has been achieved in Wuhan to inspire the rest of the world. With strong effort, discipline and team spirit, anything can be accomplished.
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