Driving Change in an Era of Shifting Dynamics

Six Sigma is being utilized earlier in the pharma value chain, while benchmarking and OEE are gaining ground

By Bikash Chatterjee, President, Pharmatech Associates

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As we head into the New Year, it’s time to take stock of the shifts taking place in the pharmaceutical industry. After scrambling to catch up with FDA guidance and adopt a more scientifically rigorous approach to product development, our industry is slowly but surely turning to process understanding rather than product testing as the primary quality driver. 

In 2007, the industry began to recognize the potential benefits of embracing a Quality by Design (QbD) philosophy in drug development. One key indicator of this is the ever-increasing number of suppliers offering software systems designed to facilitate data management within a QbD structure. Another has been the proliferation of case studies presented at technical conferences around the world by large pharma and biotech organizations that describe the application of operational excellence, QbD and process analytical technologies (PAT) programs.

What I’ve found to be most revealing about these case study presentations is the realization that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Successful multinational companies now fashion their own versions of these initiatives, piecing together key elements from proven operational excellence philosophies such as Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing to create something that fits their organizational culture and energy.

Several trends have emerged that emphasize the degree to which industry is beginning to embrace this new way of thinking:

    • Large Pharma is synchronizing strategic and tactical goal-making as part of their business strategy for success

      It’s fundamental to any business to make sure that its resources target the right programs at the right time, with a clear understanding of the metrics for success. To this end, more companies have borrowed the Balanced Scorecard concept as a basis for developing strategic and tactical goals. This approach ensures that the relationship between individual, department and corporate goals are clearly defined. Whether the organization is a start-up under pressure to meet its business milestones or a large multinational struggling with cultural and organizational differences, the ability to focus a team upon the business’s most important goals is a major step toward improving corporate performance and efficiency.


    • Large Pharma is driving Lean Six Sigma principles further upstream in the drug development process

      In recent years, the industry has struggled to embrace the basic principles of Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. Although it initially eschewed these approaches as the latest “system” for improvement, Large Pharma has demonstrated that it can implement them successfully without reinventing the wheel. Today, more firms seek to leverage the same benefits earlier and avoid many of the downstream problems associated with scale-up and commercialization. The success of this initiative may yet have the most profound impact upon the industry and its ability to compete in the world marketplace. The medical device industry has employed these principles within the structure of 21 CFR 820 for many years, integrating commercial criteria early in the design and development process. Those companies that do it well find they can lay the foundation for an effective Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) program, which enables product longevity and earning power. On the other hand, pharma and biotech have largely left R&D largely alone as an incubator for creativity.


  • Large Pharma is leveraging risk-based opportunities as presented in the latest ICH and cGMP guidance

    FDA’s latest guidances advocate the use of scientific inquiry in developing quality initiatives that will ensure ongoing product quality. The application of risk assessment within the product development lifecycle presents an opportunity to optimize the time, resources and cost for developing a drug product. This approach represents a shift from the traditional mindset, where blanket inspection and testing are a surrogate for process understanding, to one driven by control and monitoring. Today, many companies would consider it unthinkable to proceed with process or method development without a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) in place. The shift in how tools such as FMEA are applied has made a significant impact on both program management and process quality, and has demanded a definitive understanding of such processes. Subjective and ad hoc information is quickly dismissed when assumptions cannot be corroborated with data. Ironically, this requirement is one of the basic tenets of ICH Q8 and Q9, which much of the industry has struggled with implementing.

I predict several other trends will have an even greater impact in embedding this shift in focus:

Formulation Outsourcing

For years, pharmaceutical companies have relied upon Contract Research Organizations (CROs) to address capacity shortages in manufacturing or to help compress development timelines. Often considered an extra pair of hands, CROs have emerged as much more. Routinely tapped to assist with pre-clinical work, CROs are now capable of providing more than just resources. Intellectual property, novel delivery platforms and access to distribution networks have rapidly become key components in a firm’s decision to outsource to a CRO. Although manufacturing responsibility due to capacity or capital constraints has traditionally been the driver for seeking a contract organization, more upstream responsibility is being outsourced in an effort to leverage unique expertise and/or compress timelines. Complex formulation challenges or performance-driven reformulation responsibilities are now being outsourced to specialized CROs due, in part, to the emergence of skilled, low-cost CROs in Asia. It is easy to imagine the increased complexity in prescribing a QbD approach to any CRO, particularly one that resides in a different culture and time zone. If the advantages then are to be efficiently extracted, a clearly defined roadmap that integrates risk-based assessments and objective metrics for control is required. Ideally, a CRO can quickly morph from a hired contractor to a strategic partner, given the impact of its work on program timelines and milestones.

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