We interviewed Martti Syrjälä, a noteworthy influencer of the laboratory sector, for the Mylab Now publication in 2014. He successfully directed the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service and passed the baton on to his successor last April. What thoughts does Syrjälä have regarding the future of healthcare and the laboratory sector now, seven years later?

On the second day of April, Doctor of Medicine and Surgery, Professor h.c. Martti Syrjälä and his wife skied leisurely across an icy lake to spend Easter on the island. The previous day, he had retired from the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service. In the sauna at the summer cottage, it seemed a good time to think about the recent life change with his wife.

Yes, it does feel good. I am happy about the condition of the Blood Service that I’m passing on to my successor: its financial state is good, the staff are well and customers appreciate the work we do. I want to give special thanks to the fantastic Finnish blood donator base, who have not left our Finnish patients in trouble even during the coronavirus pandemic, he says.

Syrjälä thinks that it is good for an organisation that the leader changes and things move on. In the Mylab Now magazine in 2014, he estimated that in ten years, he would have rendered himself unnecessary. Is that prediction coming true?

Maybe that phrasing was not quite thought through; being only human, I do want someone still to have some need of me. But we can safely say that I have finished the things that I thought were my tasks to do, he muses.

Developing the laboratory sector’s automation industry

As a medical student in the 1980s, Syrjälä had a summer job in Blood Service, where he took blood and made blood products, among other things. Since graduation, he has had a multi-faceted career in different positions at HUCS’s laboratory and HUSLAB. He came full circle when he returned to his old summer job – only this time as CEO.

At HUCS over twenty years ago, we transformed a laboratory operating with a traditional model into an automatic laboratory. It was one of the first laboratories with such a high degree of automation in Europe. At the same time, a laboratory automation industry was created in Finland, which is still alive and well today. The project was long and demanding, but a great success.

During the project, he collaborated closely with Mylab. New features and features supporting the automatic process were built into Mylab’s laboratory information systems. In the summer of 2020, he was elected to the Board of Mylab.

It has been splendid to see how brilliant a company Mylab has grown to be over the years. I hope that with my experience I can be of use to Mylab.

Resistance to change is managed with open and inclusive preparations

When Syrjälä was hired as CEO of Blood Service, blood service operations around the world were in transition, so Syrjälä was faced with a big challenge. Activities had to be adjusted, both by cutting back the network of offices and by making extensive redundancies. The situation did, however, kick-start a way of thinking about continuous improvement. He feels that they were able to communicate the need for co-determination negotiations in such a way that the staff understood the reasons behind it.

It often takes a long time to recover from a co-determination process, because it is traumatic for the whole work community. We put a lot of effort into improving our staff’s wellbeing, which proved to be a wise decision. In 2020, the Blood Service was found to be among the best workplaces in Finland for the third time in a row.

The financial situation of Blood Service improved, and Blood Service was able to make all necessary investments without affecting the prices of blood products. During Syrjälä’s time at the helm, Blood Service’s research and development has changed direction, a solution has been found to the question regarding Blood Service’s premises, and a large-scale digital transformation was brought about.

These are not things that I have done, but that the whole staff has played a role in carrying out. My job has been to provide direction.

A change will transpire in 2022, the likes of which Syrjälä would not have imagined: Blood Service will move from its long-used premises in Kivihaka, Helsinki to new premises in Vantaa.

I have long been in love with the old place in secret, with its its charming spirit and traditions.  But now, we will have modern and consistent premises, tailor-made for the Blood Service and with easy access to transport links.

It is quite common for large projects to evoke resistance to change. In Blood Service, that has been managed by taking the time to discuss the different aspects of the change with staff and by envisioning the new situation in advance, Syrjälä explains. The change of premises stirred emotions, but surprisingly raised no resistance.

Wellbeing through leading with real-time information

About a year ago, Blood Service adopted a new information system that Syrjälä describes as the world’s most modern blood service information system solutions. It handles the recruitment of blood donors, the process of blood donation, and the production of blood products, as well as the testing and delivery of these products.

Syrjälä thinks that information systems and data have a significant role in leadership as well. He has sought to lead with information, so that operative decisions are grounded in the analysis of real-time facts instead of impressions.

I have strived to develop real-time reporting tools to aid leadership. In addition to numeric values, we need analysis of trends: it is an essential tool.

Lately, he has thought about leading with information in a wider sense. The coronavirus pandemic brought with it the national direction of healthcare agents based on the analysis of real-time information. The nation’s leadership has reacted to changes in indicators within a few days.

Society should learn a lesson from this. There are many things in the sphere of healthcare that would benefit from national and more real-time information. In the treatment of diabetes and heart conditions, for instance, interventions could be focused on the right targets. Resources should be invested in people’s wellbeing before they end up in the gears of the healthcare system.

In the social welfare and healthcare services reform, instead of changing administrative structures, I long for promotion of wellbeing. Perhaps someday, data mining will help us to analyse the health effects of building a new football field in the city, for instance.

Now, however, it is time for Syrjälä to hand over the reins to his successor. He has warmly reminisced about old times after receiving emails from his former colleagues.

I am thankful for my great career and the trust I have received in it. Trust gives courage, courage breeds deeds, and deeds bring success. Demanding work still takes its toll. Now I can focus on things that I did not have as much time for, such as my lovely family and the five joys that are my young grandchildren, he gushes.

“These are not things that I have done, but that the whole staff has played a role in carrying out. My role has been to provide direction”, says the newly-retired long-time CEO of Finnish Red Cross Blood Service, Martti Syrjälä. (photo Terhi Honkonen)

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