Setting up a Center of Excellence: Interview with ConocoPhillip's Director of Continuous Improvement

Greg Bussing

To set up a Center of Excellence or not to set up a Center of Excellence? That is the question. But Shakespeare’s Hamlet is unlikely to provide us any clues as to the answer.

So in this PEX Network interview we turn to someone with more practical experience. In this program, Greg Bussing, Director of Continuous Improvement at ConocoPhillips discusses why his company has gone down the route of setting up a Centre of Excellence and offers his perspectives on the reasons why you’d want to set one up and potential pitfalls to avoid.

Should you set up a BPM Center of Excellence?

Greg will be speaking at our upcoming Energy Excellence event taking place this October in Aberdeen so he also offers up some general industry perspectives as well.

Please note: this interview is a transcript of a podcast interview and has been edited for readability. To listen to the original interview, please go here.

PEX Network: There are those who say that operational excellence has never been more important in oil and gas because of things like the rising costs of exploration and production, as well as increasing competition in the market from unconventional oil and gas. Do you agree that operational excellence has never been more important?

Greg Bussing: I’d agree that operational excellence has really got a very high level of focus right now - deservedly so. But we also have to think about execution excellence and planning excellence; it’s really excellence in the whole business model that I think has become more and more important.

For ConocoPhillips - since we repositioned and became an upstream-only company - we have a very strong focus on growing our margins as well as growing our volumes. Some of the unconventional players have changed the landscape to where there are some clear winners that have great land positions and great footprints and are executing really well from an operations standpoint, as well as from the planning and the execution piece. Those can make a very large difference in your ability to achieve some of that volume and margin growth.

PEX Network: So mediocrity is just not acceptable in any area of the business anymore?

Greg Bussing: One of the things that, as an industry, we always have to keep in the forefront of our minds is that we are a cyclical market. We’re not sure when the next margin and price challenges will come but you know that they're out there. When the market’s riding high everybody can do well, but being able to weather the next downturn is one of the things that everybody’s got to keep in their head as they’re developing these processes.

PEX Network: I love how you describe your role as Director of Continuous Improvement on your LinkedIn profile: you say that "we make the business better at getting better". What does getting better at getting better actually involve at your company?

Greg Bussing: I’ve been with the company for a long time so I've seen us go through a lot of different things. One of the things that we’ve done – as well as others in the market - is a lot of improvement work. But it hasn’t always led to continuous improvement. For instance, you may have a really good person whom you give a project. They go do it well and the results improve but then they go focus on something else. At the point the results can return back to where they were.

So what we want to do is apply continuous improvement in a very purposeful way. We want to target it at the right things. We also want to learn from our history of improvement: how do you drive these things effectively? how do you make them sustainable? how do you make them faster? and so on. That’s where we came up with the idea of getting better at getting better.

PEX Network: One of the things that seems to hotly divide opinion in Process Excellence circles is whether you need to set up a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in order to be successful. I understand you went down the route of setting up a CoE at ConocoPhillips. What made you decide to adopt and go with that particular approach?

Greg Bussing: There’s a couple reasons. First, we’ve got a strong functional excellence focus in our entire company. That means we’ve got a desire to bring a few experts into the central organisation and use those folks to go out and assist the other functions in really understanding how to be functionally excellent.

So it was a natural fit to say that we also want to be functionally excellent at continuous improvement, which would mean having a group of folks in the centre who have gone down this journey before. A central team that can help coach and mentor the leadership teams to make sure they’re doing the change management component well as they talk about the different changes and improvements and also to make sure that they’re focusing in on the right things. That team can also go out and do training so everybody gets consistent training and applies these processes in the same way.

PEX Network: What would you say have been some of the principle challenges of setting up a centre of excellence?

Greg Bussing: I may not have a great answer to that one. It’s gone very smoothly to this point. When I started in the role - and we created the CoE at the end of last year - we were focusing on our content, on visibility, making sure we had really good people and then getting the word out so that different places could start down the roadmap.

We had anticipated a certain amount of uptake in the organisation and it has so far exceeded our initial predictions. What I would say has been important is that our organisation was very ready for what we were talking about. We’d done some things over the years, planted some seeds and so it just seemed like the time was right for a lot of what we’re doing.

PEX Network: It sounds like it’s gone very well at your organisation but do you think there’s some pros and cons that people would need to be aware of before leaping into a centre of excellence? It sounds like, for instance, you were quite mature already when you went down that route.

Greg Bussing: I think that having a level of process maturity really helps. You have to have some parts of the organisation that understands that you actually have to do some things differently in order to succeed.

We’ve been doing a lot of work. Like I said, we've done a lot of things where we’ve tried to do improvements and there were enough examples out there that people were aware of and knew about, where we’d done something and then two years later we did it again and two years later we did it again and so people had seen some of those things and there’s been enough visibility of that, that there was a recognition out there that you do need some folks to help you along the journey, you do need to have a little more of that organisational discipline.

I think in the places where we had that history of improvement the uptake has been really good. The places where we don’t have that history, you have to follow a process to sow the seeds and then do some of that care and feeding to get the organisation more ready to take on what the centre of excellence is offering. But, yes, I think the key is to have an organization that understands the need and the value of what you’re doing.

PEX Network: It seems to me that most oil and gas companies have had process excellence functions. You started in Six Sigma over 13 years ago, for instance. Have you found that the challenges that have confronted you in your role have changed over that time period?

Greg Bussing: One of my first roles in the company - back in the 90s – was as team lead, plant manager of one of our manufacturing operations. We made products for Ford Motor Company, and so I got involved in getting the facility-ready and started getting into a lot of the process excellence stuff at that point.

However, at that time, the company didn’t have a set career path in process excellence. Instead, it was something you ended up doing because you enjoyed it.

But one of the things we’ve done recently is to acknowledge that we need capability and capacity in our organisation of that type of person or the type of skill set that process professionals have. What’s changed for us over that period has been recognizing what it takes to really achieve the process excellence that we’re driving for. We’ve also recognized that it takes capability and capacity, it takes organisational will, and it takes leadership focus. Those are all things that Deming [refers to Dr. W. Edwards Deming] was telling us for years and I think we’re getting better at listening now.

PEX Network: So it sounds like it’s become much more of a formalised career?

Greg Bussing: It definitely has. We don’t anticipate that we’re going to be a large group of people. Instead, we anticipate that it’s more the model where you have a lot of people that come in and help fulltime as a continuous improvement driver for a couple years. Then they will go back into the line organisation or function or wherever they came from, but continue to use those tools.

We anticipate that most of the people are going to rotate through but you expose them to the methodology, you get them used to doing it until they can apply it normally, and then you give the more difficult, heavy lifting stuff to the people who are doing it all the time. It’s that Toyota way of getting to the point where you have everybody trying to make improvements all the time, so that you’ve got some full-time people who are doing it as their day job but then there are a ton of people who you have gotten that experience and done the training who are now doing it as part of what they do, in every job they do.

PEX Network: You're going to be speaking at our upcoming process energy event, on setting up a centre of excellence, what more will you be talking about in your presentation?

Greg Bussing: We’ll talk a little bit about how you codify what "good" looks like and then how do you also make it so you can learn as the various business units do things differently. You’ve got to take that Darwinian approach where you accept that people are going to learn as they go, so that there will be slight mutations to the program. We have to decide whether it’s a good mutation or not.

We’ll also be talking about how you get the content in place so that people know about it: how you get an organisation exposed to it, create a network in the company, create some buzz, and those kind of things.

We’ve had couple different journeys: you had the Deming stuff early on and you had TQM and you had Statistical Process Control. Then a lot of people went into Six Sigma and then Lean Six Sigma and then some people said, let’s just do Lean.

We’ve looked at it and said, there’s sense and purpose in all those things that we can apply, but we really want to make sure that we demystify these things for the business leaders. All they really care about is that the things that they are going to be managing and trying to do well today, tomorrow, next year, and ten years from now. It’s our job as the continuous improvement community to help them achieve their aims of improved business results. So we’ve said let’s teach people the tools, the processes, the methodologies and then let the folks who are expert in continuous improvement demystify it for everybody else.

You don’t really have to know if we’re doing Lean or Six Sigma or Business Process Management or any of that stuff, you just want to know that you’ve got somebody on your team who can help you get the results you want to get to.