Jerry Timpson President and Principal

Operational Excellence Will Save You Millions (and Millions)

November 29, 2016  10:43 am

Well… the exact number is not certain, but organizations could get much more from their OpEx by shifting perspective.

Operational excellence is another way of saying “comprehensive process improvement.” As an enterprise function it’s better than ever. Across business and industry (government, healthcare, services and manufacturing) it delivers year-over-year benefits. Yet, results could be much better. Many of the Operational Excellence (OpEx) programs we encounter are too narrowly defined and treat OpEx simply as deployed resources with some useful tools.Connected Team

A broader definition recognizes operational excellence as a result and OpEx as a system that affects the entire enterprise. It’s not an overlay, but rather a cohesive network of people applying standard techniques to deliver and improve results.

The Function Emerges
In the mid-90s, OpEx programs began to emerge from their automotive heritage, branching into other settings where they were perceived to offer a return on investment. Many of those efforts fell under the headings of Lean and Six Sigma. The basic concepts of process improvement have changed little over time but there has been such a proliferation of techniques and jargon that it can be a little confusing. Now we use terms like Continuous Improvement (CI) and Operational Excellence (OpEx) as a catch-all for anything related.

A few major themes are part of any OpEx endeavor, such as: what it works on, the techniques applied and how its organized. These attributes can be designed-in, or as is often the case, derived incrementally and ad hoc. This happens when one part of the business tries one approach, while another faction tries something different. Instead of resolving to a standard, the outcome is often the ‘tyranny of the OR’ where it’s hard to discern what is working and what is not. “Are we doing this, or are we doing that?”

Let’s look at these three themes in a little more detail.

What It Works On
OpEx has two modes:

  1. Reaction – Responding to the most pressing issues of the day in areas such as productivity, quality, service and customer satisfaction.
  2. Prevention – Focusing on incremental improvements and sustaining; including process adherence and change management.

This is the right combination, but it’s pretty easy for organizations to get stuck in reactive mode and think of OpEx people as fire fighters whose main job is to put out fires instead of prevent them. This weakness can contribute to the downfall of OpEx when times get tough. Then, the biggest issue may be cutting cost and OpEx is often a cost that gets cut early. The up and down behavior makes it even tougher for the OpEx function to take off each time there is a restart.

Techniques Applied
Tool kits includes things like: Lean, Six Sigma, manage change, coach, facilitate, deploy policy, map value streams, define standard work and conduct kaizen events and workshops, etc. That’s a pretty big list. Organizations often attempt to include too many tools and end up doing few of them well. Efforts can feel disjointed because they are. This is an area where the need for tool selectivity and standards guided by OpEx governance is obvious, but often lacking.

Differences in techniques applied across various industries have less to do with type of industry and more to do with the plethora of opinions, experiences, and competing priorities. For sure, a variety of techniques are expected and one size does not fit all. But wherever people and process come together, while the vocabulary and examples change, waste elimination and variation reduction methods don’t differ too much. Moreover, the methods and structures that deal with behaviors, engagement and change management are always the same.

How It’s Organized
Maybe the most obvious shift in recent years is the rise of OpEx as a legitimate internal function. This means that, at the very least, people are identified on an organization chart. Assigning resources is a good thing, but the amount of variability in how talent is applied suggests too much experimentation. Models include:

  • Corporate Owned – Resources are sponsored by headquarters and mostly directed from there
  • Operating Unit Owned – Resources are sponsored by and embedded within the operating units
  • “Spray and Pray” – Broad skilling of associates without requirements for immediate application
  • “Hammer and Nail” – Attack obvious problems with available resources, often with limited tools and experience

BalanceIn practice it’s typically a combination of all of the above. The ratios shift over time as organizations learn and politics play out. Striking the right balance is essential for OpEx effectiveness. Articulating governance, communication and how people engage are all critically important.


A Systems View

The themes noted here – targets, techniques, organization – should be familiar to anyone who has worked on or inside of OpEx. It’s easy to get caught up in organization charts, tools and the “fires”. When this happens, focus narrows and we miss the opportunity to engage broadly across the entire enterprise.

Operational excellence is not a function. It is a RESULT that is best achieved by an OpEx SYSTEM that engages everyone.

Effective OpEx systems balance corporate and operating unit needs, target urgent problems and prevent others from ever occurring. They define, and then use, standard work to get things done. Reporting, capturing best practices, communication and sharing information is described, done and enforced. These are the things the OpEx function should be working on.

Broad organizational involvement and commitment is perhaps the most obvious benefit of a robust OpEx system. Leveraging the knowledge and input of those closest to their work shows respect for people and drives decision-making to the lowest possible level – a key tenant of an improvement culture. A fully engaged organization achieves relevant results, gains traction and becomes a sustainable continuous improvement engine. When the OpEx system is designed and defined, its performance can be evaluated and improved. A good OpEx system is:

  • Simple – The easier it is to understand, the easier it is to see if people are doing it
  • Engaging – Everyone participates. Ownership and expectations are articulated
  • Actively Managed – Leaders are hands-on in guiding the change process
  • Structured – The way the organization is expected to interact is clearly defined

FlipchartDon’t over-complicate it. Too many rules lead to unwarranted bureaucracy and can kill beneficial creativity. If design and definition become the major focus, no one will ever get out of the blocks and actually start fixing things. Balancing standard requirements with creative and flexible problem-solving is one of the great challenges. Sorting that out creates a sense of ownership and develops the organization.

As people should be at the heart of any OpEx system, start by describing the critical few things that demonstrate personal participation and then link these elements to recognition and reward. This is just one of many small steps that the enlightened enterprise goes through to become operationally great. It can be done once leaders decide that operational excellence is a literal objective and OpEx is a system for engaging the organization instead of a check the box function or a quick-fix for the crisis du jour.

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