How an ops driving lesson may have saved former Pfizer CEO Kindler

Imagine the operations challenges Pfizer faced under the leadership of Jeff Kindler (photo), who "resigned" as CEO in December 2010 following some zigging and zagging on R&D strategy and dissent from the lower ranks. Manufacturing barely made it onto his radar screen (at least in the recent and compelling Fortune case history of it; here's more from Pharmalot), but many of the decisions he made and considered had big operations consequences.

The resignation of the former general counsel for GE and McDonald's came about one year into Pfizer's digestion of Wyeth, a manufacturing/supply chain/ops challenge that likely continues to this day. And it also came during the period of Big Pharma patent cliff falls. Fortune does an excellent job of explaining the business struggles, the corporate politics and the danger of indecision and flip-flops.

Kindler's decision-making and management styles, as well as some difficult-to-understand loyalties, served to undermine the confidence in him of his board as well as executives and managers. Little good comes to CEOs when board members begin questioning lower-level execs and demanding confidentiality.

Any such inquiry is bound to turn up mixed results. But a clear enough picture emerged for the majority of the board, and the rest is history. In less than 5 years, the board retreated from its bold ex-pharma leadership decision to 33-year Pfizer vet Ian Read (photo), a former accountant who had run the core pharma business since 2006. His steadiness stands in sharp contrast to the turmoil that surrounded Kindler's leadership.

His decades of experience within Pfizer, particularly his most recent stint in the core pharma business, must surely have given him an insight to the ops side of the business that Kindler lacked. It's not that manufacturing and supply chain operations ought necessarily take a leading role in corporate strategy decisions, but they should have at least some role. It's the classic producer/process tradeoff, something in which successful enterprises have found a balance. Given exceptional leadership--especially in these tough pharma times--successful companies will strike that balance by bringing in the necessary ex-pharma expertise and melding it with institutional strengths.

Given less-than-exceptional leadership, the enterprise is prone to wide swings in one direction and then overcorrections in the other, followed by an overcorrection in the first direction, like a student driver attempting to keep the big machine centered in its lane. But as the driving instructor teaches, the operator concentrating on the road immediately ahead can avoid the constant turbulence of multiple overcorrections simply by focusing farther down the road. - George Miller