Recognizing accomplishments is an important part of a Lean Six Sigma deployment, both for the honor that it brings to the practitioners and for the visibility it brings to the program.

Covidien plc, a $10 billion global leader in healthcare products, has embraced that concept wholeheartedly in its annual Bring Home the Gold competition.

The competition is a corporate event that showcases the best manufacturing improvements, new product developments and business process improvements throughout the company, driving home the importance of Covidien’s Operational Excellence (OpEx) program and building employee pride in the efforts. Four projects are awarded trophies as the top OpEx projects of the year.

The 37 projects at the 2009 event represented every Covidien business unit from around the world. Using Six Sigma, Lean and Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), the projects collectively accounted for more than $10 million in increased revenue and cost reductions.

How the Competition Evolved

The Bring Home the Gold competition originated in 2005, when what is now Covidien was the healthcare segment of Tyco International. Tyco sponsored that first contest as a way to share best practices and spotlight Tyco’s OpEx program, which had been deployed five years earlier. Each of the company’s segments, including healthcare, submitted projects, which fell into five categories: 1) Sales and Marketing Excellence, 2) Inventory Reduction, 3) Manufacturing Excellence, 4) Transactional Excellence and 5) New Product Design. To rally support among its employees for the projects, Tyco Healthcare actively promoted the competition. That first year it took the top spot in three of the five categories.

In 2007, when the healthcare segment separated from Tyco and became an independent company with a new name, it retained the Bring Home the Gold contest idea. The competition has grown into a catalyst of Covidien’s OpEx program by bestowing prestige on those who solve the day-to-day issues that slow productivity and impede growth.

A Change in Focus

The event brings project leaders to Covidien’s U.S. headquarters in Mansfield, Mass., for a week of team-building activities, workshops and competition. Projects are judged on eight criteria, including teamwork, analysis techniques and results. Judges select winners in the areas of Customer Focus and Globalization, Innovation, and High-performance Organization – a change from the original classifications.

“One important way the competition has developed over the years stems from our decision to move away from categorizing awards by technical methodology,” said Vice President of Operational Excellence Kamal Ayoub. “By focusing our awards around the company’s strategic imperatives, it is clear that we are helping to drive the business forward.” (See “Best of the Best in 2009” on page 58 for more on how the winning projects are supporting Covidien’s areas of strategic focus.)

Going Local

Another evolutionary change in the competition is how projects are selected. Covidien has developed local Bring Home the Gold contests at manufacturing plants and other Covidien facilities, including research and development centers, distribution centers and commercial offices, with the winners going on to compete in the company-wide event.

“Originally, the projects…were selected by the OpEx leadership team,” Ayoub said. “However, we decided having [preliminary] local contests…was more equitable.”

This change also increased the visibility of the program, adding an extra layer of recognition not only for the winners
but also for all the local OpEx projects nominated Each finalist competing at the corporate level helps build local pride.

Leadership Support

Another element that has helped Covidien’s competition succeed over the years is having buy-in from the top. “Our CEO [Rich Meelia] has been a strong advocate of the deployment of OpEx and this has provided the proper support and environment for the program to flourish,” Ayoub said. “His involvement in the Bring Home the Gold event really highlights the importance of OpEx to the company.”

Meelia, who is also the company’s chairman and president, personally announces the winners in an all-employee message. In addition, a member of the senior executive team presides over the awards ceremony each year and company executives participate in the judging. More than 70 executives helped judge the contest in 2009.

OpEx professionals assess the technical aspects of the projects, and the executives review the business impact. This approach gives executives a more in-depth look at the financial benefits and has helped foster an understanding throughout the organization that Operational Excellence leads to bottom-line improvement.

Also helpful in that regard are the program’s statistics: Since its inception in 2000, OpEx can point to more than $1.3 billion in savings for the company and a significant impact on product quality and customer satisfaction. More than 3,900 Covidien employees have been trained in Six Sigma, Lean and DFSS. Using OpEx tools, Lean leaders, Green Belts, Black Belts and Master Black Belts are actively driving major company initiatives such as gross margin enhancement, new product development and pricing.

Recognition Is Key

Covidien makes every effort to ensure that the competition has visibility. One day of the week-long, company-wide event includes an open invitation to every employee at the Mansfield headquarters to view the projects. In 2009, more than 900 employees toured the exhibits.

The winners are honored at a formal evening awards ceremony and dinner at the conclusion of the event. The CEO’s message announcing the winners is published on the company’s intranet site, The Pulse, which reaches across Covidien’s global workforce. In the months following the competition, a feature story on each of the winners runs on the intranet site, along with a full listing of all the finalists with links to their project presentations. Finally, a video of the event is created and shown to new candidates receiving OpEx training.

7,000 Projects and Counting

The Bring Home the Gold event is just the tip of the OpEx iceberg at Covidien. The 37 finalists in the 2009 event were selected from hundreds of projects completed in the previous year. Since the inception of OpEx, more than 7,000 projects have been completed or are currently active.

The techniques at the heart of OpEx are used to tackle both big and small issues. Manufacturing, sales, communications, human resources, product design, distribution, training and purchasing are just some of the areas that are affected.

The value of OpEx can be seen not only in the dollar amounts saved, but also in the resources dedicated to the program and its reach in the company. By providing real solutions to real problems, Operational Excellence has become embedded in everything Covidien does, Ayoub said.

“What makes OpEx at Covidien so successful is we work on issues that are important to the businesses we support,” he explained. “We are working on real life issues that have real impacts on our products and our customers and ultimately on our bottom line.”

About Covidien

Covidien manufactures, distributes and services an extensive product line that includes surgical tools and supplies, sutures and wound care products, needles and syringes, diagnostic imaging agents, respiratory care devices, and generic pharmaceuticals. Its products are found in virtually every healthcare setting and sold in more than 140 countries. The company has 42,000 employees, nearly two-thirds of whom work in 58 manufacturing facilities located in 16 countries. Other employees, including more than 5,000 sales representatives, work in more than 60 countries.

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