What is also unusual is that the story manages to lay responsibility for problems directly at the feet of individual actors. Everybody is calling for accountability reporting these days. This is what it looks like. Here’s a passage on McNeil’s quality chief hired in 2004.
That year the company hired a new head of quality, Bob Miller, an ex-Pfizer staffer described as sharp and ambitious by former co-workers. Miller in turn hired some of his old colleagues. The tight-knit crew, who took their meals together and lived part-time in a house near the factory, according to former employees, had the collective know-how to fix the plant.
But that’s not what happened. One day in 2005 a batch of more than 1 million bottles of St. Joseph aspirin failed a quality test because a sample didn’t dissolve properly, according to two employees involved in the testing process. Following company procedures, the employees blocked the batch from being shipped. Their manager then called the two into his office. “He said, ‘You like working here?’” one of the workers recalls. “‘This should pass. There’s no reason this should fail.’” Ultimately the two quality workers were ordered to retest the drugs, then average the new scores to arrive at a passing grade so that the pills could ship. Says one of them: “You get to the point where, like me, you end up doing what you’re told.”
The piece goes beyond even individual agency to point to structural issues, including J&J’s “disastrous” decision to move McNeil from its heavily regulated pharmaceutical division to its consumer products division after buying a similar division from Pfizer in 2006.
We’ve been accused for falling into a simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys construction when it comes to the financial crisis. But as I was saying the other day, it’s not necessary to choose between probing individuals and examining structural issues. You can and should look at both.
Here’s a look at the effect of cutbacks on the factory floor:
According to tax records filed with Whitemarsh Township, where Fort Washington is located, McNeil’s workforce in the township was slashed by about 32% between 2005 and 2009. The biggest cuts, employees say, occurred on the factory floor. As the production staff shrank and equipment budgets were slashed, more and more mistakes began to pop up. Gaskets blew, metal punches broke, processes failed. “Those guys were getting worked a lot. They were always understaffed, always behind schedule,” says a former quality employee. “They had about 10 things to do, and two people to do it.”
“The whole dynamic was very stressful,” she adds. “It wasn’t Do your job the right way, it was Do your job fast. Make it look good, and get it done as fast as possible.”
I didn’t even know local tax records had employment data.
We’ve had our issues with Fortune lately, mostly for seeming out of touch during a time of severe economic distress and no small amount of corporate wrongdoing, so it’s a pleasure to give credit where it’s surely due. These kinds corporate probes are rare and getting rarer. Readers should appreciate them when they come along.
Update: 5:25 p.m.: Another J&J recall today. This time, the Times says, a different unit is recalling two hip replacement implants “because many patients required a second hip replacement after the company’s implants failed.” Each recall makes Fortune’s piece that much more timely.