Arjen Linders (Mediq): 'Focus on Daily Operations'

Arjen Linders (Mediq): 'Focus on Daily Operations'
Over the past two years, everything that used to be relatively stable has been upended. To be able to make choices and continue delivering the best possible care in turbulent times, Mediq’s director Arjen Linders works towards getting and keeping the basics in order. As his focus is fully on day-to-day operations, certain projects are on hold for now. They will get done eventually. “To make the future happen, we must first manage the present.”

Arjen Linders and his wife agreed to go abroad for two or three years at most. They ended up staying more than twelve. They have been back in the Netherlands for a few years now. Linders decided to make a big leap. After many years at Philips (“I even got to launch the Senseo in the Netherlands”), he made the move to Mediq, a supplier of medical devices and healthcare solutions that help people manage chronic conditions or serious illness more easily at home, in care homes or hospitals. The timing was impactful, as he had only just joined the company when Covid hit. It was an adjustment for their children, who were suddenly stuck viewing classmates on screen, but also for Linders himself, who had to deal with supply chain issues and an enormous workload. Linders knew what was needed right away, as he told Bianca den Elsen, Managing Partner for the Netherlands at operational consultancy Valcon. Back to basics, to the here and now. “Planning for the future is of not much use when your people are barely coping with the present.”

The Covid pandemic was hard on many organizations. How was it for Mediq?
“In the first year of Covid, as you know, there were huge shortages of protective equipment such as masks and rubber gloves. For the gloves, we were entirely dependent on Malaysia, one of the largest rubber producers worldwide. Deliveries were taking six or seven weeks. Those are very long waits. Everyone was getting pretty nervous. And we all took that stress home with us at the end of the day. That is what is ingrained in our industry, after all. People here aren’t concerned with profit growth or market share; they are here because they want to help others. If a patient does not get what they need on time, it can have severe consequences. Supply chain issues affect patients which leads to a knock-on effect on the personal lives of healthcare workers. When I was launching Senseo in the Netherlands, we had supply chain issues too, but a month without a new coffee machine is annoying, at worst. A month without medical gloves is a real problem.”

You have been leading the company for several years now, and the initial shock of the pandemic has faded. New market challenges have since reared their heads. How is your organization doing?
“There are still plenty of uncertainties. Everything is more expensive, raw materials are scarce, there is a war in Europe and the labor market is tight. That means it is hard to find the right people. And once we do find them, we often have to train them: Jobs at our medical service center can be complex. Our staff is put to the test. So, the pressure remains. But this is what keeps my job interesting, though. We have been working hard lately. We are looking for new, smarter ways to attract and retain employees. For example, we recently set up auxiliary customer service hubs in Surinam and Turkey. These hubs are a good way for us to attract new qualified staff.”

How have all these crises affected you as a leader? What lessons did you learn?
“I do my best to listen as much as possible, to hear people’s stories and to help them. I aim to point out the North Star; the direction in which we are headed. And I make an effort to understand people’s difficulties. The world does not end if we miss one deadline, or target. I think that is actually my most valuable lesson from recent events. You cannot say yes to everything. To be able to continue delivering the best and the right care in these uncertain times, we must sometimes make choices. We have consciously chosen to manage and maintain the basics: helping our customers, delivering orders and answering the phone promptly.”

In the course of my own work, I have noticed that many board members increasingly deal with operational issues. It sounds as though that applies to you too.
“Yes, definitely. Compared to three or four years ago, I am much more involved in our day-to-day business; ‘the working day’ has made its way into the boardroom. It is not without logic, as the future is not possible without the present. To make the future happen, we must first manage the present. The successive crises erased our certainties. Inflation is in the double digits, we are suffering from supply chain issues, huge staff shortages and relatively high absenteeism. This results in increased workloads. Over the past two years, everything that used to be fairly stable has been upended. Things are no longer as predictable as they used to be. Planning for the future is of not much use when your people are barely coping with the present. Incidentally, I do not find it totally negative for management to be more closely involved in the workplace and to experience the dynamics first-hand.”

Are there any topics or projects you have consciously decided to ignore for now?
“Very much so, unfortunately. We had to defer some things, simply because we lacked capacity. I hoped for more progress on our project to move from care to prevention. I wanted to do more with data science and data analytics. I also regret that certain partnership projects have been suspended. We just have less time and capacity available for such efforts. Our current focus is on delivering the right care to the right place. A good end-to-end approach is hard right now, but we will get back to it. In that first Covid year, we actually solved a lot of supply chain problems by working together intensively. This changed in the second year. We have noticed that the numbers of remote workers reduced such cross-functionality. We are all working to re-establish that again.”

You have put various data projects more or less on hold. How important is digitization at Mediq?
“Very important. We have a Chief Digital Officer to help streamline our digital policy. We have tens of thousands of customers and products and many, many transactions. Naturally we are interested in improving and speeding up our customer interactions, by setting up online portals where customers can place their own orders, for example.
We work on digital product innovations as well, such as our diabetes care program. Patients can use our Diacare app to record their glucose levels. Care providers can then determine which actions to take based on that information. That allows for much more streamlined care. The healthcare professionals save time and customers with diabetes can make the most of their lives despite their chronic condition.
We are also trying to use digitization to speed things up. In Germany, all medical prescriptions are still done on paper. That means we have to digitize thousands of prescriptions each day. The Netherlands is far more advanced in this respect. We aim to use digitization to keep things moving and reduce workloads in healthcare.”

If we were to meet up again in a few years, what would you hope to have achieved?
“Well, first of all, we should have our basics back in order. That is the most important thing. Tackling workloads, absenteeism and staff shortages is what matters now. Our full focus is on that. Our day-to-day operations need to be running smoothly. And those targets are high. If you can get 96 percent of your products delivered on time, it would be a very solid number. When this involves thousands of products a day, though, it still means hundreds are arriving late. In our industry, we cannot afford that. We need to do even better.
The same applies to our phone system. Barely any large organization manages to answer the phone in less than a minute, but that is what is expected of us. Care providers have better things to do than hold the line to reach Mediq. Once we have the basics in order, we can start thinking about what comes next.”

What would you like to come next?
“I hope for us to be able to continue improving access to and quality of care. It is our ambition to help make connections between the various parties in the healthcare system and to make those parties’ lives easier. There have been too many point solutions in the healthcare industry in recent years. We need more integrated solutions that involve the entire chain, solutions that benefit everyone. We are all too focused on our own little pieces of the chain. Cross-silo supply chain improvement has become harder over the past two years. Hopefully, we will soon we able to advance in this area again.”

You previously worked at Philips, a listed company. Mediq is partially funded by private equity. What are the differences? How does this affect your own job?
“Private ownership is refreshingly different. Not easier or harder necessarily, but different. For example, there are no quarterly reports, which creates a different rhythm. Instead of planning quarterly, we plan monthly, yearly and towards our North Star. Our owner is invested for the long term. They are genuinely engaged and have a vision on investment in our IT infrastructure and fulfillment infrastructure too. I find these conversations very satisfying. This long-term vision is quite different from my experience during my time in the States. In the US, I worked with companies such as Walmart, Amazon and Costco. Walmart’s inventory turns over in a matter of hours. With Amazon, you discuss what you did that morning the same evening. Here, we are trying to improve the quality of care, and if that takes time, so be it.”

Mediq is also very active when it comes to acquisitions. How does this affect the company and yourself?
“We made just under twenty acquisitions in the past 15 years, mainly in the Nordic countries, the Benelux, Scandinavia, England, Switzerland and Hungary. These were generally smaller companies which we then absorbed into our own. We are always looking at how we can strengthen our company even further. It is an interesting process, and trickier than I had imagined. Larger companies often have special acquisition departments. Here, a small team handles the entire integration. Change management suddenly gains importance at such times, for example. When we acquire companies, that means the associated entrepreneurs often come along. Those people introduce very different dynamics and ways of working. That can be extremely instructive.”

Such acquisitions tend to unintentionally squash entrepreneurial spirit. How do you aim to prevent that?
“My old boss always said that integration requires collaboration. That is very true. You cannot simply force a company to adopt all your processes. We actually want to preserve and encourage their entrepreneurship. I mainly do so by listening during integrations, encouraging dialogue and not taking a heavy-handed, top-down approach in telling people what to do. At the same time, the people we acquire need to fit in with our existing organization. We require consistent reports and budgets, and we have to be able to do the right analyses. We also insist on a consistent approach to accountability, response to queries and explanations. Such exchanges of views are what make acquisitions fun.”

How are you liking the overall experience of working in healthcare?
“Our company wants to work both with and for the healthcare industry, which suits my personality. If we do our job well for the patients and providers, we become basically invisible. I like that about this work. Everything revolves around the professionals providing the care and around the patients. It is our task to keep things running smoothly. Anything else is irrelevant. That does mean it needs to be in your character to prefer to stay invisible, operating in the background.”

And is it in your character?
“In the US, I once had a manager who gave his team pens engraved with the words, ‘It’s not about you, it’s about them.’ I agree with that statement. As management, we are more than privileged already. We have received a fine education and we got to travel all over the world. It’s not about us. No, it is about the people who help patients to feel human, and about the patients themselves.”

This interview was published in Management Scope 10 2022.

This article was last changed on 23-11-2022