The Challenges in Deploying Operational Excellence

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Deploy: to organize and send out (people or things) to be used for a particular purpose; to open up and spread out the parts of (something, such as a parachute).     Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

Organizations face many challenges when trying to deploy or redeploy an improvement program. So much of the success of any initiative depends on how it is implemented and used by the organization. To be successful, you must consider what is the correct method to use, what are the change management issues, and how it will be deployed. A one-size-fits-all mentality will not work in any of these three areas.

It all begins with culture

We must begin with self-examination of the current culture in your organization. Several questions must be answered:

  • How are decisions made today?
  • How are goals set and cascaded?
  • What has been successful in the past? Why?
  • What has failed? Why?
  • What skills are our people lacking that we need to improve?
  • How will leaders be engaged?
  • How is success measured and how will we measure success?

There are many common reasons for failure, some of which are cultural challenges conflicting organizational priorities, lack of leadership engagement, lack of skilled resources, poor planning and unclear or confusing communication.

Unfortunately, understanding the culture of the organization is not usually part of the deployment planning effort. It is critical to learn from your failures to predict how the organization will accept change. If possible, start with a pilot program, which can uncover gaps and cultural challenges in your organization.

Components of a deployment plan

An effective deployment plan must address the following topics:

1. Program—What are you deploying and how will you manage it?

2. Leadership—How will leadership lead the program?

3. Processes—What will you be improving?

4. Measurements—How will you know when you are successful?

5. Projects—How will improvement work be parsed into actionable and manageable units?

6. People—After these steps have been thoroughly planned and evaluated, what you have learned will be the foundation for:

7. Strategy—How will you deploy the initiative?

1. Program: The components of an Operational Excellence program
Begin with deciding what method fits your organization. I prefer to think of OpEx programs as different sets of tools that, when taken together, create your toolbox. Don’t get caught thinking that only one tool or method works. When you bought your first hammer, you did not throw away your screwdriver. Instead, think about the types of improvements your organization needs for the short term, intermediate term and long term. Also look at how the tools will be used. What tools do you expect everyone to use regularly?

Decide on an improvement method, such as lean, Six Sigma or a model with your own title, the task of deciding on the appropriate governance and tracking routines comes next. This includes deciding what needs to be reported, by whom and to whom. The typical deployment reporting includes measures of monetary success, as well as internal and external satisfaction. Getting people to agree on committing to and reporting on these measures is never easy. Be wary of the trap presented by easy-to-capture activity measures, such as the number of people trained or projects completed. They are not a good measure of real impact on the organization. Challenge the organization to show impact, not activity. Also, after you have decided on the method and who you are training, you must decide who will be leading the training and how it will be certified and tracked.

2. Leadership: Roles, goals and responsibilities
As stated by many management experts it all begins and ends with leadership. Leadership is responsible for the ultimate success of any program and needs to establish:

  • The vision for the organization.
  • The ownership and strategy.
  • The governance for the effort.
  • The capabilities for the people and the processes.
  • The goals and measures for the organization.

Often, leaders aren’t given the tools or resources they need to be successful. Most modern programs use champions or sponsors to help drive the program throughout the organization. The problem is that champions or sponsors often have the least amount of training and are usually the busiest people. There are often multiple layers of management between the OpEx professional leading a project and the champion who is responsible for overseeing the effort. Begin with a three to five-year vision of how process improvement will be ingrained into the organization.

After you define the phases of your deployment plan, establish the leadership goals you will use to drive the appropriate behavior. If there are multiple layers of management between the champion and the person leading an improvement project, ensure people in those layers have attended some level of training and own partial responsibility (goals) for the success of projects in their area.

Trying to understand the savings benefit or cost improvement potential is very challenging. Unit costs or financial impacts are not always clear or easy to calculate. Engage finance as the gatekeeper for financial information and have them own partial responsibility for success at the program level. Also, internal drivers of external customer satisfaction are often challenging to determine. Identify the top internal indicators that lead to customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction and assign them to the different leaders in your organization.

Finally, establish criteria for employee selection for training that is consistent with the organization’s culture and is supported by HR. Ensure that there is management support for the employee’s success. The truly successful organization is one that has a common language for understanding their critical business problems, and a standard process for improving their business processes to meet their customer and shareholder needs.

3. Processes: A must to understand
Everything we do is a process. Organizations are structured networks of processes operated and executed by people. Continuous improvement begins with understanding your current processes and establishing a vision for what those processes could be in the future. The definition of process management is the systematic use of quality management principles and tools to manage a process, seeking to achieve a world-class level of performance. While most OpEx deployments begin with a focus on improvement projects, eventually those involved in the deployments must ask, “Are we working on the right thing?”

To answer that question, start by focusing on processes that have the greatest impact on the customer. Whether you call this a value stream as in lean, or a core process as in BPM, or the critical-to-quality drivers of voice of the customer, they should lead you to the same destination: your business processes architecture.

The following is a partial list of questions to ask about processes architecture:

  • What are our core processes, enabling processes and management processes?
  • Do we know what customers expect of them?
  • Has a transformation vision been established for each process?
  • What is the benefit we can achieve from understanding our processes?
  • How well have we documented our processes?
  • Do we have a common vocabulary for process understanding across the enterprise?
  • How do we measure and manage them?

4. Measures: Too many measures, too little time
No organization has ever told us that they don’t have any measures. It is impossible to stay in business without measuring something. There are several types of measures found in every organization.

The critical eye needs to distinguish between common business, management and continuous improvement measures. Previously, we mentioned that there are measures for the success of the program, and goal-based measures for the leaders to achieve. A third set establishes measures that show how the overall performance of the company has improved. Think about the following arrangements of measures:

  • Cost - quality - time. The three types represent the classic quality triangle. It is often shown this way because there is a continuous tension between them. Most organizations understand their costs for the categories they must track on their balance sheet such as labor and capital. They struggle to understand clearly the cost of poor quality, or where the results of poor flow caused by trying to optimize individual performance impacts speed and quality.
  • Customer expectation measures versus individual performance measures. Here is a classic example: All call centers measure the individual agent’s call-handle time, but few understand or measure what the customer’s expectation was for that call. For every process, you must ask, “What did the customer expect from that process?” and “How do we measure whether they received it or not?” By “customer,” we mean internal and external customers.

  • Program versus project versus process measurements. This last classification is an important distinction from the deployment leader’s perspective. There must be a balance between measurements for the success of the actual continuous improvement program, the results from the improvement efforts and the performance of the core processes themselves.

Program measurements tend to be mostly activity-based and are short term. At some point, the major curve of training will subside. Project results measures are addicting. After you have demonstrated results from your improvement efforts—in either money, time or satisfaction—there will be goals established to continually increase that number. Process measures are ongoing and measure the true ability of the process to meet the customer’s needs. The process measures should evaluate the current state of the process itself.

Measurements that do not drive improvement actions are wasteful. Improvement action that is not driven by measurement is random at best. There are literally thousands of things that could be measured, so a thoughtful strategy must be used to decide what to measure. This makes measurement an integral part of the deployment plan.

5. Projects: Structure that delivers improvement results
Projects are fundamentally how your organization delivers results using the quality tools and methods. Continuous improvement efforts depend on the culture of organization, the capability of the people involved, the method adopted and the amount of effort available. Consider the following when deciding how a project is defined:

  1. Are you interested in many small incremental improvements versus a few large transformational changes? 
  2. Are you working on service or transactional processes versus manufacturing or industrial processes? 
  3. Are your processes highly automated or are they specialized and highly manual?

Another tip is to spend the extra time defining your projects and match the organizational level resource to the complexity level of the project. Lastly, tracking improvement efforts is a necessary but thankless task. Project tracking ties into the program and methodology sections above. The types of projects and the types of methods you use are important in designing your tracking tool.

6. People: The engine that delivers improvement results
Too often, training is where organizations begin their deployment efforts. There are multiple decisions that must be made first about what your program is and what you want to accomplish before you decide what to train and who should be trained. After you are comfortable with the program design and the method selected, you also must decide how you will phase the improvement program into the organization. This is the strategy piece that is covered in the final section. Begin with an assessment of the skill levels of the people involved. Six Sigma relies heavily on statistics, it is better to begin training high-performing project managers who can understand the technical aspects of the project rather than individuals with strong technical capabilities but no demonstrated ability to deliver on projects.

The result of the investment in Six sigma is a common language across the organization for driving continuous improvement with a common set of key, customer-focused indicators to show how the organization was progressing. That should be the goal of every quality improvement training program—no matter how large or small the organization—to create one language for improvement.

7. Strategy: Putting it all together into a plan
An effective deployment strategy is the structured accomplishment of all the things listed in the earlier into a planned sequence over time. While there are many pieces to the puzzle of deployment planning, many of them can be worked on concurrently. Don’t forget the cultural resistance you will face.

How does your organization accept change? Successful improvement projects take people away from their normal day-to-day firefighting activities and consume time during the learning and adoption phase. Plan on the impact this will have in your organization. Decide on the speed of implementation as well. Would you be better off running a pilot with a well-paced and thoughtful expansion or a total immersion? In addition, communication must be a component of every activity. Revise, adjust and recommunicate your strategy regularly and let people know where you are going continuously.

The final point of this hard work? Make sure your team has some fun and recognition while doing this. The team will deserve it.


Ankit Tara
posted 5 years 24 weeks ago

Please examine your

Please examine your definition of Operational Excellence. It traditionally means low cost producer. The other options are product leadership and customer intimacy.
Ankit Tara
posted 5 years 24 weeks ago

Excellent article, especially

Excellent article, especially where it touches the often overlooked impacts of organizational culture. But like so many writings on that topic (ref: Edgar Shein, "Organizational Culture"), it seems to stop short of practical examples or cases on how to apply it. Your "7 self-examination questions that must be answered about culture"- how about some words on how to apply the answers? Is there a strategy to deal with all possible 7 answers, or are there cases so incredibly dysfunctional that you're wasting your time even reading the rest of this article? I'm being a bit cheeky, but just trying to go a little deeper on an excellent point. What are examples of "cultural challenges conflicting with organizational priorities", and how would one deal with them? Thanks for a very thought provoking article. The single most important topic I am experiencing in 35 years in industry.

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