MDIF#7: The Strength of a Team – The Diverse Knowledge and Skills of its Members.

Steve Fisher, B.S. Business, Retired, Abbott Vascular Devices-Femoral Closure ( formerly Perclose ) provided the following short history of his long involvement with medical device product development. It provides several insights into managers, hiring by entrepreneurs, career options and the power of the team.

“My Academic background was Business Management with a concentration in Materials Management. My practical background involved old cars, Naval Aviator, some machine shop work and just enough physics to allow me to understand, and appreciate, but not enough to create.

I quickly learned that Management held no rewards that appealed to me. I found myself working with the Engineering teams on product improvement and development along with duties as a Production Purchasing Agent.

After fifteen years of this activity, I was invited to work with a start-up with the expressed purpose of supporting the Engineer and later Engineers.

This was 1993, when the Medical Device field was expanding, but was very much in it’s infancy. Dedicated companies were often small family or partner operated shops deeply routed in their particular specialty.

I was given the charge of working with the Engineers to make sure that they had the materials, contacts and information they needed to get on with their projects. I was allowed take any steps needed to make sure the team could move forward unhampered by the clutter in seeking out the support they needed.

Key elements in this were that I was situated right in the middle of the team. My purchasing authority was the same as theirs, and I reported directly to the VP of R&D.

This is a recipe for success. I knew their thinking and assignments and could go ahead to take the steps to provide all that they needed.

Most companies won’t see the benefit, but would see this person as an expense, rather than a vital team member moving things forward.

Potential suppliers could start with me or any team member. I was included in all team meetings and was expected to know what supplier would be the best suited to each need. A benefit to this was that I became the contact person for suppliers seeking business and could operate as a Supplier Development contact, not a person trying to screen out suppliers.

Wish more companies would put folks in this position. Not a bad spot for someone with Engineering background who doesn’t want to be on a bench all the time.”

Items to note:

  • He had 15 years of experience before he was invited to participate in a medical device start up.
  • Steve’s background was business not engineering but because of an “outside of the box” business decision he ultimately became a key member of a product development team.
  • He relieved the engineers of time consuming materials management functions so they could concentrate on what they do best developing the product.
  • As a result of his position he did not act to eliminate vendors from consideration but actively investigated and developed each suggested vendor if they met the development teams needs.
  • Most company’s management would not consider placing a materials manager in a product development team.
  • Management is not necessarily a satisfying ultimate goal for a career.

Innovation doesn’t just occur at the engineering level in a corporation. It also occurs on the business side. Steve’s placement within a product development team is an example. His point that many business managers would not see the importance of putting a materials management professional within a Research and Development team is telling. As a general rule most upper management in a corporation consider Research and Development Departments as a business cost not a profit center. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t get into but they mostly revolve around return on investment. This is a fairly recent change in business practice in the last 10 to 15 years and has changed the employment landscape for engineers dramatically. The result is that today corporations tend to wait for an entrepreneurial firm to invest in the R&D and then buy the company and/ or technology if it proves profitable. Since R&D is not a profit center they scrutinize requests for expensive additional manpower with a jaundiced eye.

I can appreciate the load that Steve took off the engineers. I certainly remember having to handle ordering and receiving materials for my product development work. It required a considerable amount of my time to find the appropriate vendors, describe the project, determine their capabilities, etc.. Time that could have been used to move the technical aspects along faster. Another insight we can gain is that although we hear a lot about software based entrepreneurial firms started by a few individuals with little experience it can typically take a number seasoned professionals to get a medical device firm off the ground. There is no substitute for experience and teamwork when it comes to getting things up to speed and running in an efficient manner. It is rather an amazing sight to behold the speed at which a concept can be taken from idea to final product when an experienced team is at work. Finally is his description of how he found a satisfying career that did not end in management. Something for all of us to remember as we move along our own careers.

Steve gave me some other insights which I will relate in an upcoming article.

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