Client Success Story: Charles River Laboratories

Charles River has supported the development of over 80% of all of the drugs approved by the FDA for the past three years. Founded in 1947, Charles River now has more than 100 facilities in 20 countries worldwide and a reputation for timeliness and accuracy in every stage of the drug development process. 

Their customers, including leading pharmaceutical, biotechnology, agrochemical, government, and academic organizations around the world, have relied on Charles River’s products and services to help expedite the discovery, early-stage development, and safe manufacture of novel drugs and therapeutics.

Today, the publicly traded company maintains a high speed of growth by making strategic acquisitions that strengthen its already broad portfolio of products and services. Over the past two years, the company’s rate of acquisition has increased significantly, with six sizable acquisitions being made within months of each other. 

While the organization expands with each new acquisition, so does the workload of their 18,400+ strong workforce. Their marketing department was no exception. 

The reality of operating in a highly-regulated industry and dealing with the volatility brought on by a global pandemic was already a source of delays and inefficiencies in the internal process.

In combination with the influx of new products and services to support, as well as an ongoing digital transformation,  the balance inside Charles River marketing was going to be difficult to keep in the long-run. 

Anticipating the vital need for scalability in the years to come, Gina Mullane, CSVP Client Experience & Chief Marketing Officer and Darci Helbling, Executive Director, Global Marketing Operations at Charles River began to seek opportunities to transform their department into a more effective, predictable, and efficient operation. 

In October 2020, amidst a global pandemic and still acclimatizing to remote working, Charles River decided to undertake a systematic Agile transformation across their marketing department.

Darci reached out to AgileSherpas to support the Strategic Marketing and Marketing Operations teams on the journey to the summit of marketing agility through preliminary assessment, certification training for Agile teams and leaders, and embedded coaching and workshops, all led by expert Sherpas.

By combining the know-how that comes with her nearly 16-year tenure at Charles River with a deep understanding of the team dynamic inside the department, Darci collaborated with AgileSherpas to design an Agile marketing pilot that combined strategic and operational marketers, the learnings from which could be rolled out more widely within the department in a low-risk way.

Over the course of the last nine months, Charles River marketing has trained their teams and leaders in Agile ways of working for marketing, successfully completed a three-month Agile marketing pilot, and gradually expanded the implementation to 10 more teams within the department. 

Team leads and members have full accountability for the Agile process. They’re dedicated to continually improving their application of Agile through analyzing productivity metrics, visualizing their process, and engaging in open communication. A regular schedule of Agile meetings, such as reviews, retrospectives, daily standups, and backlog refinement, helps keep work flowing smoothly.

As of August 2021, the Charles River marketing teams enjoy an average 50% increase in their speed to market for marketing campaigns, all while team members report higher morale. In a highly collaborative environment, they’re also seeing better communication with stakeholders, who, in turn, feel more connected to the ongoing marketing activities. All of this combines to produce more value for their customers, which is, of course, the ultimate goal of marketing in the first place.

Let’s take a look at how Darci, Gina, and the entire marketing department streamlined internal processes for greater efficiency through Agile, to consistently exceed customer expectations and stay top of their market with the support of AgileSherpas.

What was your primary challenge prior to this Agile transformation? (What was happening in the organization that told you and other leaders there was a need to address the specific knowledge and skills gaps? What were the goals? And, what were the obstacles that stood in the way of your achieving those goals?)

We have an amazing team of smart, dedicated, passionate marketers but we were all doing too much at once, and requests from our stakeholders were only increasing. We were running so fast launching campaign after campaign, that we weren’t slowing down to dive into the analytics and let that impact the next campaign. We saw an opportunity to gain efficiencies in our processes so we could avoid burnout in the team, but also to use data to drive more strategic decision-making. We wanted to do less, better.

How did that challenge make you feel, personally?

Frustrated. My role is focused around establishing processes and implementing and improving marketing technology to enable the teams to function optimally. But, no matter the improvements we were making, we couldn’t solve that problem. We were still struggling to get high-quality, strategic tools and resources out to our customers in a timely manner due to the volume pushing through the team.

What began to change after the work began? What did AgileSherpas specifically bring to the table? (For example, “Beyond the approach, AgileSherpas provided the practical tools and techniques to drive learned behaviors and engagement...”)

We had looked into other consultants for support, but the differentiator with AgileSherpas was their holistic approach. It wasn’t just a training on scrum practices, or a few sessions to prioritize our backlogs, it covered all aspects of Agile and guided us through the transformation.

The team benefited from AgileSherpa’s strong focus on training and educating the team first; everyone understood the ‘why’ behind the change, and that really helped with adoption and commitment to the transformation.

What were the pieces, in terms of the practical tools and techniques participants received, that were particularly noteworthy and deemed valuable/applicable towards the intended transformation?

The response we heard from the group on the most impactful piece of our Agile toolkit was utilizing Work In Progress (WIP) limits. This was key to our volume challenge that was leading to long production times and an overwhelmed team. We learned to stop starting and start finishing, allowing the team to focus on fewer projects at once, with the highest-priority work to get done first.

Standups and Retros are a favorite of the team as well. At first there was concern over adding additional meetings to the day, but we’ve found that the daily communication at our Standups actually reduced meeting time overall and saved time chasing answers and then having to report them out -  eliminating unnecessary back-and-forth communication. The Retros provide a forum for constant refinement, so we are always improving the process and addressing roadblocks in real-time.

Are there specific results or outcomes that can you point to and share?

In just 3 months, we are seeing a significant improvement in project duration and while our project volume is actually increasing across all of our Agile teams. We’ve cut our average project production time in half, and our employee engagement metrics have all shown improvement. We expect these metrics to improve further as we continue to refine the process.

What might you say to somebody on the fence about considering this type of effort or skills-building effort?

There is so much research and support demonstrating the benefits of Agile, that I think most organizations know it is the right direction to go, but such a significant shift can be overwhelming. As tough as those first few weeks of implementation were, it didn’t take long for us to see the benefits to our production time, project volume, and team morale. We continue to see those improvements over time, so we only wish we would have done it sooner.

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