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How they used pink sticky notes to save lives

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-02 08:50:47-05

NEWTOWN, Ohio — This is a story about how a business relationship and a stack of bright pink sticky notes ended up saving a local company $1 million on the development of a product designed to save lives.

It starts with Jack Kraeutler, the CEO of Newtown-based Meridian Bioscience, and Greg Battle, the CEO of Cincinnati-based Lean Continuous Improvements.

The two men got to know each other as members of the board of directors for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the Dan Beard Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Kraeutler knew that Battle was selling his interest in Coolant Control, a chemical management company in Ivorydale, and asked what Battle planned to do next.

That's when Battle told Kraeutler about his new company — Lean Continuous Improvements, or LCI — and how it worked with companies to help them cut waste from their systems and processes.

Kraeutler was intrigued. Meridian Bioscience is a company that develops, makes and sells kits to diagnose infectious diseases. The business is heavily regulated and very competitive. And Kraeutler knew the faster his company could get a quality product to market, the more successful it would be.

Meridian Bioscience already had worked with two other consultants to try to streamline its processes and systems without getting the results Kraeutler wanted.

"You know what consultants do," Kraeutler said. "They come in, they spew, and then they leave. It did not affect anything. It didn't change the culture."

He was confident LCI would be different and wanted to hire Battle's company.

Lawrence Baldini wasn’t as sure. Baldini is executive vice president of operations and information systems at Meridian Bioscience. He reminded Kraeutler that the company had just been through two consultants, but Kraeutler had an answer for that.

"He looks over and he says to me, 'What do you want to do — lay down? Get rolled over?'" Baldini said. "I said, 'You got a point. I'll at least entertain having a conversation.'"

Within a half-hour of meeting with Battle's team, Baldini was sold. LCI was interested in addressing the processes at Meridian Bioscience — not the personalities of the people who worked there, he said.

LCI started working with the company in July 2015. And before long, Kraeutler and his top managers decided LCI's focus should be on one of Meridian Bioscience's most important and promising new products: illumigene Malaria, a diagnostic test that is up to 80,000 times more sensitive at detecting the malaria parasite than the tests commonly used.

"Malaria kills about 1 million babies a year," Kraeutler said.

The faster malaria is detected, the better it can be treated, he said. Meridian Bioscience was convinced the product could start saving lives as soon as it launched. So the faster it was ready, the better.

That's where the bright pink sticky notes enter the story.

Solving Problems — One Sticky Note at a Time

The first step in the LCI process was for Meridian Bioscience to create an "obeya room," a special space where John Drogosz, an LCI consultant, could work with Meridian Bioscience staff to try to cut waste from the company's processes.

Battle modeled his business approach on "The Toyota Way," the continuous improvement philosophy that the Japanese automaker has used successfully for many years. The obeya room is part of it.

"It's a room where you solve your problems," Battle said.

Meridian Bioscience built a new room in a warehouse at its Meridian Innovation Center in Newtown so the work could happen without interruption, and Drogosz and project managers got started doing what Battle calls "value stream mapping."

Meridian Bioscience project managers placed sticky notes of different colors on a long sheet of white paper on the wall to identify all the different steps and procedures involved in getting the malaria test to market.

Over time, they talked with Drogosz to identify steps and procedures that weren't needed — often because they were duplications or steps that had been put in place because one department didn't communicate well with another.

What the process looks like at the beginning with the bright pink sticky notes representing waste.

"All these pink Post-Its are the waste we can take out," said Ellen Michael, a project coordinator at Meridian Bioscience who worked with the LCI consultant on the malaria test.

So the white paper starts on the left with a giant jumble of sticky notes of various colors, the pink "waste" sticky notes end up in the middle, and the simpler, streamlined process ends up on the right.

In the case of the malaria test, Kraeutler said the product got to market 90 days faster as a result of LCI's work with the company's team.

That saved the business $1 million, he said.

And because the test got to market faster, more babies can be diagnosed faster, meaning more lives can be saved.

The process after some streamlining.

'An Investment in the Future'

Of course, it all sounds a lot easier than it actually was.

"I was nervous at first," Michael said. "A lot of people don't like change. The first day was rough, but we got it done. The second day got a lot easier. By the third day, the team was cohesive. We were having a good time, and we were working to get it done."

Now Meridian Bioscience is using the process for more projects, Kraeutler said, and is working to make it part of the company's culture.

"Our goal is not to stay here," Battle said. "It's to come and get you guys trained. Once you get good enough at this, it's like tying your shoes."

The new approach already is making a difference, said Becki Kinsey, a senior project manager who worked on the malaria test, too.

"You're already seeing people see so much improvement," she said. "We're still looking at processes and taking waste out."

From left, Ellen Michael, Lawrence Baldini and Becki Kinsey.

As far as Kraeutler is concerned, the money his company has spent to hire LCI has been worth it.

"I won't say it's been without pain, but there have been a lot more smiles than I expected," he said. "This is an investment in the future of the company and the future of our leadership. So far, we couldn't be more satisfied. But we've got to do this six, seven, eight, nine or 10 more times."

That's fine with Battle.

Meridian Bioscience was LCI's first customer after Battle launched his new business in late 2014. And he couldn't be more excited that LCI helped make a difference with such an important product right out of the gate.

"Every minute of every day, there's a child dying from malaria," he said. "Think about how many kids could be impacted by this product? It's an unimaginable amount of lives that are going to be saved by people knowing they've got it and getting treatment for it."

Battle paused for a moment and then added, "It's like God's work."

Michael, Kinsey and others already are working with Drogosz on two or three more products in the obeya room, with four or five more working their way through research and development.

"Every new product we plan to bring through will go through this procedure," Baldini said.

Meridian Bioscience is so pleased that Kraeutler has told Battle that he can bring prospective customers to the Newtown facility to show them how the LCI process can work.

And it all started with that relationship between Kraeutler and Battle.

"I think it speaks to Cincinnati," Kraeutler said. "If I had met Greg in a restaurant or something like that, I'm not sure I would have been as open. But knowing him through the Boy Scout board and the chamber of commerce, there was a trust."

The Meridian Innovation Center in Newtown.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 17 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.