Process Analytics: Gesundheit

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Process Excellence requires that practitioners use, depending on the context and maturity of the organization, tools from three major domains: lean flow, process analytics, and re-engineering. This story is an illustration of how organizations can make their processes “smarter.”┬áThe Wall Street Journal’s Serena Ng wrote:

This winter when you get flu shots, research symptoms online or complain about coughs and body aches on Twitter, consumer-products makers will be watching. The flu is a big moneymaker for companies that produce tissues, disinfecting wipes and cold remedies, and they are finding new ways to predict and chase outbreaks around the country to make the most of the opportunity.

The key is having commercials and other ads on hand, ready to roll out in markets where the flu is just starting to pick up. Show up too early, and people don’t feel the impulse to buy. Show up too late, and sufferers will have already loaded up on rivals’ offerings.

“We want to market more when people are getting sick, and not when people are well,” said Ted Karkus, chief executive of ProPhase Labs Inc., which makes and sells Cold-EEZE lozenges and other over-the-counter cold remedies.

The Doylestown, Pa., company plans to run more television advertisements and step up marketing in stores when it sees signs that the incidence of flu is ticking up, Mr. Karkus said.

To get a weekly read on the number of people seeing doctors for upper-respiratory illnesses, many consumer-products makers keep track of surveillance reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The companies also buy data from firms that collect information about patient visits from clinics, pharmacies and medical facilities around the country. Now, they are trying to get faster intelligence by tracking social media and medical-information websites for real-time information about outbreaks in specific ZIP Codes.

Clorox Co., maker of its namesake bleach and germ-killing wipes, and Procter & Gamble Co., which makes Puffs tissues, are keeping track of flu search trends on Google and looking for regions and cities where people are looking up information on “flu contagious” and “walmart flu shot,” which were popular searches in recent weeks.

A report circulated within Clorox in late October noted that the number of flu-related searches from people in Pittsburgh was double that a year ago. Data for the week ended Dec. 15 pointed to higher activity in cities such as Dallas, Tampa and Chicago.

The company is also mining chatter about the flu on Twitter, after a similar effort during the last cold and flu season helped boost sales. Many Twitter users disclose the city and state in which they live, making it possible for Clorox to identify hundreds of ZIP Codes with higher numbers of tweets or discussions about the flu. The company matches up those ZIP Codes with thousands of stores, and contacts retailers to make sure they are well stocked with its products. It also targets online ads and digital coupons to people who are talking about the flu.

During the last flu season, Clorox sent 30,000 additional cases of disinfecting wipes to six states that were most affected by the flu, including cities such as Weslaco, Texas, and Cicero, N.Y.

“We believe some stores would have been out of stock if we didn’t intervene,” said David Kellis, who oversees the company’s social-media communications. The company reported double-digit sales gains in the three months to March 2013 from disinfecting products, which saw record shipments.

Kimberly-Clark this year has an online flu-prediction tool that uses what it calls a proprietary forecasting model to come up with a three-week cold and flu forecast The model uses information from many sources, including social-media discussions, weather and air-travel patterns, over-the-counter drug sales and “major public events that could increase transmission opportunities,” a Kimberly Clark spokesman said.

Seeking an edge over rivals, Reckitt Benckiser Group, a consumer-products company whose brands include Airborne vitamin supplements and Mucinex cough remedies, is working with health website WebMD to track and anticipate flu outbreaks in counties nationwide.

An online symptom checker on WebMD’s site gets around three million visits a month. WebMD matches queries with individuals’ ZIP Codes or Internet addresses to determine which areas have higher incidences of people with respiratory illnesses.

David Schlanger, CEO of WebMD Health Corp., said the data from WebMD users is “highly correlated” to the CDC’s flu tracker and in many cases can identify outbreaks at a geographic level weeks before they show up in the center’s data. The reason: people typically research their symptoms online when they first start to feel ill, while the CDC data is based on reports from doctors after people seek treatment.

The lead time could enable Reckitt Benckiser to adjust its supply chain to make sure stores don’t run out of its products, and to do more marketing in cities where more people are exhibiting flu symptoms.

“We can’t control how many people fall sick, but we can try to predict when the flu is going to hit,” said Alexander Lacik, president of the company’s North America business. “Most people don’t have a cabinet full of stuff for when they fall sick and will go and buy what they are looking for when they need it.”