Vistakon: Far Sighted

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2004-10-01 Print this article Print

The contact lens division of Johnson & Johnson was doing its first global rollout. So its project team spanned the globe, too.

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Sunbury, England, 11 a.m.—Two weeks to launch. Five of six major customers, including the Boots pharmacy chain and Tesco food and drug stores, had been satisfied with the way their orders for Vistakon contact lenses would be handled under the new system, working with Chris Fountain, who was coordinating formats and testing. Then, a "field mapping sizing condition" cropped up. The last of the big U.K. customers required fields that contained 14 characters instead of 12. All fields for all six would have to be changed.

Jacksonville, Fla., 6 a.m.—Functional designer Jennifer Bone absorbs the new requirements and analyzes their effect on existing electronic documents that will be exchanged by Vistakon, the company she works for, and the U.K. customers. She communicates the effects on all existing forms to a testing team, which will assess whether there is any unexpected ripple effect on forms already formatted for the other customers.

Bangalore, India, 3:30 p.m.—Parmindar Singh, a developer with Accenture, takes the change request, alters all affected fields and sends updated code back to England. When Fountain shows up for work the next day, he can show the results to all six customers—and run the results on a server in his data center. The launch proceeds, on schedule.

Welcome to the world. Or at least the world of global rollouts of basic business systems. Which is the world, these days, of Vistakon, a division of Johnson & Johnson that sells a billion dollars a year worth of contact lenses meant to be used for two weeks, one week or even one day.

It's a world where speed is essential, and complexity rules. Yes, Vistakon makes a throwaway product. But what rolls off its manufacturing lines has to be every bit as precise as a glass lens. The basic curve is carefully specified and matched, as is the thickness of the center and each edge. All told, there are 25,000 "stock-keeping units" for the fingertip-sized product. Some 15,000 orders a day are taken. Tens of thousands of lenses flow off the production lines in Jacksonville and Limerick, Ireland, every hour.

"It was not magic'' that led Vistakon to standardize the way it handled orders around the globe, says Larry Kuhbander, director of the J&J unit's Atlas Project. It was the demands of the business: Customers in Italy shouldn't have to worry about whether they are being billed the right amounts for shipping, and those in Wichita, Kan., shouldn't have to worry about anything except how long it will take a two-week supply of lenses to arrive.

"We needed absolute speed,'' Kuhbander says.

Easier said than done, at least at the outset of the Atlas Project, begun in August 2002. Back then, Vistakon operated 20 distribution centers and 20 customer service centers just in Europe. Back then, it operated 60 computerized business systems, from accounts payable to purchasing to planning to order taking, from 60 different suppliers. Back then, managers of sales in 20 countries in which Vistakon operated sent Excel spreadsheets at the end of each month to controller Ron Pierce; the results were manually imported into consolidated financial statements.

Which could make for interesting reading. Even when Kuhbander and scores of Vistakon business and technical employees set out to simplify and standardize its system for taking orders and coordinating financial reports, they knew that spitting out clear reports was going to take work. "Where you're going to have the most fun is getting the paper out of the system," says Kenn Allen, finance lead for the project.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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