As the engineering manager of Johnson Matthey Medical Device Components (San Jose, CA), Venkata Pokkuluri leads the team with the mission of innovation and growth in medical device components. Under her strategic guidance, her team collaborates with customers and operations to take an idea from concept to commercialization. With her expertise in Materials Science, lean manufacturing, and failure analysis, she provides technical support in manufacturing of Nitinol medical components.
Venkata brings more than 12 years of experience in the development of medical device components. In her previous role as Operations Manager, Venkata built and optimized plant operations to deliver products to market on time with specific focus on safety and quality. Venkata holds Master’s degree in Materials Science and engineering and has Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification.
What first drew you to medtech? When did you first know you wanted to be in the industry?
My educational background is Metallurgical and Materials Science engineering. Materials and their structures can be altered to obtain desired shape, properties, etc. My exposure to bio-compatible and implantable materials in graduate school inspired me and drove me to look for opportunities in the medical field. The opportunity presented with JM-MDC’s Nitinol facility was a gateway to my technical and career aspirations. Nitinol is a fascinating material to work with due to its unique shape memory and super-elastic properties and is used in numerous biomedical devices such as delivery catheters, stents, orthopedic, orthodontic applications etc. I am fortunate to be able to contribute to the technology that enriches people’s lives. The work we do, the products we make truly saves or enhances people’s lives and there is no greater satisfaction than that.
Why is it important for companies to be more inclusive and have more women in charge?
Coming from India with a degree in Materials Science and Engineering, inclusion and diversity is close to my heart. I truly believe being inclusive means all of us feel valued for our unique characteristics and feel a sense of belonging. At Johnson Matthey, an inclusive culture is integral to our values and ambitions for the future.
I am a firm believer in leveraging Diversity and Inclusion. Women bring unique perspectives to the table that will enhance organizational excellence as it stimulates productivity and growth. In my 12-year career with Johnson Matthey, I am very fortunate to have witnessed numerous women lead projects that went on to be more successful in terms of safety, quality, and efficiency. I also had an incredible opportunity to lead and mentor many young women engineers through JM Graduate rotation program that went on to excel in their careers and truly contributed to business growth.
What projects, past or present, have made you love what you do?
I have worked on variety of projects in my 12-year career with Johnson Matthey that encompass capability and capacity improvement projects, health and safety improvement projects, root cause investigation/quality improvement projects, process optimization, hiring and retaining talent, and continuous improvement projects.
One project I hold dear to my heart is the health and safety improvement project. The project goal is to improve the plant safety performance and move one step up on the behavioral safety ladder. We had gaps in terms of machine guarding, ergonomics and safety behavior. Even though the scope of the project was broad, the biggest strength was a fully committed leadership team and a great project team to address and close the health and safety gaps. We developed a list of mini-projects and prioritized the tasks based on risk. We successfully secured capital investment and human resources needed, developed and monitored timeline, and critical path items. Projects related to machine guarding and ergonomics were accomplished on-time resulting in strong safety performance verified through corporate EH&S audit. The behavioral safety improvement project was much more challenging. Implementation of daily huddles, sharing the lessons learned, safety stand-downs and involving folks at all levels resulted in getting the employee buy-in, which yielded sustainable improvements. The project gave me immense satisfaction as it aligns with JM’s value of “Protecting People and the Planet.” This project also boosted employee morale and job satisfaction verified through employee surveys.
The other project that is close to my heart in the operations manager role was driven by customers. The project goal was to reduce lead-times by half and support immediate business growth. In addition to the capital investments to improve the capacity, the business required adding 20% production staff within a limited timeframe to meet customer demand. The first step of achieving increased human resources was retaining the talent we already have on-site. We collaborated with HR, production and leadership teams to revise minimum pay to align with market and developed clear organizational structure to include career paths. The second step of the project was to host a two-day on-site job fair. The advertising strategy to promote open opportunities in local radio, newspapers and schools really helped to secure the additional resources JM needed in a short timeframe. Engineering, quality and HR teams worked together to revamp the entire training program, specifically the on-boarding process to create smooth transition. The project was hugely successful and resulted in achieving the targeted operational key metrics and ultimately meeting the customer and patient needs.
What projects are you most looking forward to?
Johnson Matthey San Jose is relocating to a new facility in Mexicali, Mexico to better serve customer needs. As a PM leader, I am leading the plant relocation efforts, working with JM quality and operations to develop validation strategies and communicate with customers to align on validation protocols and acceptance criteria. With my team’s support, I am leading technical guidance for the verification and validations of the entire product line.
I’m looking forward to a successful completion and seamless transition to the new manufacturing facility while maintaining the same high-quality standards that JM is known for.
What are some of the barriers women face in today’s medtech industry?
Even though the Medtech industry performs better than other sectors when it comes to women representation, we are still underrepresented in leadership positions, especially women of color. The unconscious bias in hiring and promoting along with a low rate (only 28%) of women in the workforce in STEM are some of the barriers. The industry needs to come together and provide opportunities to close that gap.
Describe your biggest leadership challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
Hiring and retaining talent is the biggest challenge I face on regular basis and more so in the COVID era as our San Jose, CA facility is in the highly competitive Silicon Valley. While retention issues still exists to some extent, we have much better control over it now that there are defined career paths, leadership programs and incentives to develop and empower talent.
What is the most important lesson you have learned that has guided you in your career?
In my leadership journey, I value teamwork, collaboration and communication skills the most.
While I provide clarity in terms of business priorities to align with growth, I empower my team to make decisions on day-to-day basis. This boosted employee morale and enabled their capabilities to be future leaders. I reaped the benefits of good team dynamics, specifically in COVID quarantine time as there were sudden changes in terms of the way we interact, work and communicate while fully supporting the manufacturing of Nitinol products. The biggest lesson I learned is embracing change is the only way. Being agile and resilient is key for continuous growth.
In your opinion, what more can be done to promote the greater participation of young women in the medtech industry today?
I was fortunate to be raised by parents who valued education irrespective of gender. Early education is key to empower girls by creating and nurturing “growth mindset” environment, boost confidence and provide opportunities to demonstrate their talents at all levels. As a mother of two young boys, flexible work schedules enabled me to fulfill the responsibilities both at work and home.
Johnson Matthey invests significant resources in encouraging STEM programs for women to develop future female leaders. I am proud to be in the Medtech industry and represented the industry in high school career days to encourage STEM programs. Our JM-MDC Nitinol facility also hosted field trips for high school students. So, nurturing early education and continuous support in terms of flexible work environments will help boost young women’s participation in Medtech industry.