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Between the Lines of J&J CEO's Blog About the Tylenol Crisis

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) CEO William Weldon wrote a note last week "To All Who Use Our Products," addressing the Tylenol recalls, and became the first Big Pharma CEO to publish a blog post. So how did he do?

The subtext of Weldon's post suggests that J&J's jumbled archipelago of 250 companies in 57 countries, with separate names and management trees, may be to blame: There's not enough hands-on accountability from the top. Important information doesn't appear to be moving quickly enough up the chain of command.

Like a good blogger, Weldon kept it short: His post clocks in at just 253 words. What it has in brevity it lacks in focus, however. It begins with a vague, corporate-mission statement that doesn't mention the recalls:

We have a responsibility at Johnson & Johnson to provide you with the highest-quality products possible, and we have worked hard to fulfill that responsibility day-by-day for over a century.
Weldon doesn't mention Tylenol or any of the other affected brands until the last of five paragraphs. He does, however, mention McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the J&J unit that produces Tylenol, repeatedly, sometimes in a manner that avoids placing blame on either McNeil, J&J or the FDA (i.e., "The recent recalls of some over-the-counter medicines from our McNeil Consumer Healthcare operating company are a matter of great concern").

Is Weldon actually in charge of McNeil? Not clear. Although Weldon says "we will make whatever changes are needed at McNeil," he later adds, "I have been assured that the chance of a serious medical event from the recalled products is remote." That sounds as if he's not quite sure he can actually confirm that the chances are remote because he's forced to rely on what McNeil is telling him.

This is a key issue for J&J: One of the striking things about the recall is not its seriousness (it affects a lot of products but the issues themselves are relatively minor) but rather how long it took McNeil and J&J to realize they had a problem and react to it. McNeil first received complaints about its factories in April 2008 and June 2009. I noted in January that J&J was fiddling while Rome burned.

Why is that I can correctly identify a gathering crisis at McNeil but Weldon only makes a public statement about it four months later? The events suggest that the line of management accountability between J&J and McNeil is too remote or diffuse to be useful. Perhaps its time to consolidate the archipelago and concentrate responsibility at the top. The current system seems broken.


Image by Flickr user Annie Mole, CC.
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