Assembling the impossible

3am calls and 3-year-olds on calls: this is the story of Ali Burns’ inspirational leadership through the Ventilator Challenge...

Ali Burns, Managing Director of Siemens Healthineers’ Sudbury Manufacturing facility


Prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, Ali Burns, Managing Director of Siemens Healthineers’ Sudbury Manufacturing facility, was in planning mode. Their manufacturing base in Suffolk had just celebrated 80 years of medical device production and a party was held for their current 380 staff, previous employees and family members. Plans were being made to grow the business and engage with the local community on apprenticeships and STEM programmes. All of those plans would shortly be put on hold as the scale and impact surrounding the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly dawned on the world.

For Ali and his team, their work in Sudbury is intrinsically linked with the preservation of life; supply chains and distribution networks are constantly monitored and shored-up for the critical work they undertake. “We manufacture blood gas benchtop products along with diabetes and urine analysis instruments. In normal circumstances some of these are lifesaving machines, critical in hospitals. If people don’t get our products, they could die.”

When Ali began to witness images and reports from China, and then Italy, about the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team moved quickly to secure surplus inventory to ensure production out of their Suffolk base would continue.

“If you’d told me then, in late 2019, that we’d move from planning how we were going to increase awareness of our business in the local community to working with F1 teams, aeroplane wing operatives and car manufacturers I don’t think I would have believed you.”

But that’s exactly where Ali ended up; leading the Siemens charge and coordinating efforts to contribute to the national Ventilator Challenge.

The size of the task was monumental

“There was never going to be a straightforward route through this problem,” says Ali. “I remember Brian Holliday from Siemens Digital Industries ringing me one evening having just come off the phone with the Prime Minister. He was asking how we could support the nation’s call for 30,000 ventilators to be mass-produced in a very short period. If someone could have recorded that call you would have heard the sincerity in my voice when I said to Brian, this is exactly in our sweet-spot and we can make a massive difference.”

In a matter of days Ali and a cross-section of supporting colleagues from around Siemens Healthineers and Siemens UK were seconded onto the Ventilator Challenge. Ford, McLaren, Airbus, Mercedes-AMG, DHL, Unilever, Microsoft, to name just a few all signed up alongside original manufacturers Penlon and Smiths Medical. Logos, and egos, were left at the door with the whole team united in a common goal – the mass-production of ventilators.

“To give some perspective, we were asked to scale-up the production of the Penlon Prima ES02 and Smith’s Parapac from 50-60 per week to 1,500 a week. Normally one of these projects takes years and millions of pounds and we were looking to bring it in a matter of weeks and less cost. Companies up and down the country supported us, from iPad loans, sim cards for secure networks for free and the long tail of amazing suppliers we have in our networks within the consortium.”

A calm hand on the wheel

There’s an assured and calm demeanour about Healthineers’ MD, thanks in part to a 23-year parallel career in the Army Reserve. Ali reflected on how this helped him on the late-night calls and through some of the ‘franker’ conversations: 

“You’re tested under pressure in the military. You give people a clear direction – that’s what we want to achieve, but you don’t tell them how to get there. You let them use their own empowerment to reach the goal. You're there to guide and coach. If needed you get in there and get the job done with them. All of those elements naturally feed into what we’re doing. I never asked anyone to do a 3am phone call if I wouldn't do it myself... and believe me, there were a few. You walk in the shadow of your leader.”

Ali adheres to the key tenet that no decision is worse than a bad decision, and it’s been this mentality that’s seen him successfully grow his career in healthcare working for heavyweight organisations. “I’ve never wanted to move out of healthcare. For me it’s the big value of getting up in the morning and doing something that makes a difference for people. That has always helped me stay motivated.”

Thanks to Ali’s specialist knowledge of the medical device market, paired with Siemens’ extensive digital and process expertise from nearly 100 other colleagues who joined the project, the team are able to provide support across a number of areas including at the assembly operation in Broughton, North Wales. The reason the consortium has become so effective is the speed of decision-making.

Ali explained: “People very quickly understood and appreciated the breadth of capabilities Siemens could bring to the challenge. If someone’s specialty is rapid prototyping or digital twin mapping or one of the hundreds of other specialisms, the idea leads. It’s not about vying for control of the project or pushing your own ideas; it’s purely about quickly implementing the best ideas to get the job done quickly, safely and effectively.”

Building-back better

With the Consortium on-track to hit their production target of 1,500 ventilators per week, Ali reflects on what we could learn from this whole experience and how this way of working could perhaps play some part in shaping a ‘new normal’ for businesses needing to collaborate and problem-solve; a consortium in a post-COVID world. 

“One of the huge positives is that within the Consortium we’re all engineers and problem-solvers. When you derestrict decision-making like this you really can move very quickly. Pair that with such a defining common goal and you have a highly effective team. As a leader it’s so important that you communicate that goal and then empower the team to meet it. We haven’t asked for that culture; it’s just arisen from the nature of the work.”

When asked about how the momentum could be maintained well into 2020 and beyond once a vaccine is found, Ali was philosophical: “The biggest challenge will fall at our feet as leaders. We cast long shadows into our businesses, and we impact the behaviours of our people. If we want to work collaboratively and keep these relationships, it starts with us at the top. We have to be humble and keep learning.”

It’s here that Ali conveys some of the gratitude and thanks to the Siemens team and the thousands of other people involved in the Ventilator Challenge. “Every ventilator will save multiple lives and the importance of what the team is doing can’t be stressed enough. All I have is thanks for the teams. No one has ever moaned or dragged their heels and they’ve all taken on a huge amount of extra work in addition to their day jobs.”

Humility is a key trait of Ali’s leadership style and also his personality. Throughout the epidemic, he’s been regularly joined on conference calls by one of his two daughters (aged 3 and 6). Like all of us, he has a juggling act to perform; maintaining a semblance of normality at home while also leading on one of the most critical manufacturing and logistical challenges this country has encountered in the last century.

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