Looking at Process Improvement Leaders in Operational Excellence

By: Jennifer Hurst

Over the past couple of months, we have had the opportunity to speak with leaders in several different operational excellence roles, from process improvement all the way to strategy initiative. The leaders we have spoken to have helped us to create an image of what it takes to be a successful leader in the operational excellence space.

In this series of articles, I hope to share an in-depth insight into leadership, ranging from the challenges and successes of leadership to the pressures. In this specific interview, we spoke with Jennifer Hurst, the current Global Performance Excellence Leader at Nielsen, to gain her insight into what it takes to be a successful process improvement leader.

Could you tell us about your journey to becoming a leader?

“Stepping into the role of Master Black Belt, knowing I hadn’t been trained to the extent of my team meant I had to go in with a very humble perspective and look to the team to coach and guide me through some of the more technical aspects. I think being humble with my team got me to where I want to be. I had to ask questions and rely on my team to get me up to speed. It’s allowed me to step back and adopt a more situational leadership style.”

What makes a good Process Improvement leader? 

“The main trait is really being able to lead a team in getting things done, a leaders’ work needs to be tackled with a sense of agility and hunger. A leader needs to attack problems, they can’t just sit back and plan; they need to set an example for their teams to show them how to achieve results. Being in this position you need to let your team shine and give them the recognition they deserve. This is both with their successes and also in removing roadblocks that can hinder them in their progression. There’s a huge human component to leadership, you have to have that compassion.”

"A leader needs to attack problems, they can't just sit back and plan; they need to set an example for their teams..."

Why is it important to be a self-assured leader?

“You often need to balance your level of confidence to enable you to know when you need to ask for help. For me, self-assurance and confidence developed for me over time at Nielsen. People don’t typically stay in a role for any more than 24 months, so often you have to rely on your soft skills to project self-assurance as you develop your expertise on the technical side. Any time I’ve taken on a new role, I’ve assessed what I know about the job and what gaps I need to fill. Often I need to lean on my new team to provide me with coaching and guidance. From day one as a Master Black Belt at Nielsen, I had people on my team who were much more experienced in the tools and techniques of Lean Six Sigma than I was, so I had to lean on them to help me understand the technical side of things.”

"You often need to balance your level of confidence to enable you to know when you need to ask for help."

How do you overcome the challenges in leadership?

“For me prioritisation has always been a huge challenge. I’m very much a people pleaser; I hate disappointing people and hate saying no. But the reality is that as a leader you have limited resources and there are tonnes of people who want leaders’ resources to do great things. One of the ways we got around this in 2017 was by implementing a Hoshin planning approach. We really linked Nielsen’s projects with an overall strategic focus. This resulted in me saying no to things but the way I said no changed. Instead of simply saying no, I was able to provide other solutions for the teams and gave them an opportunity to show how they’re investing in their talent while still getting the desired outcome.”

What makes leadership different in the digital world?

“I think the implications from a leadership perspective is that you need to know what tools are out there and be comfortable with the variety of tools and vendors available, as well as their capabilities. But the corollary to that is that leaders have to understand the process, you can’t just throw RPA at any process and hope for the best. One of the challenges is not to get caught up in the rush to deploy these tools, it is to take a moment to pause and say, ‘these are the capabilities that are available to use. Let’s not forget the fundamentals of what we do.’”

Jennifer Hurst's career began in the technology space as a financial systems analyst and after working across an array of industries, Jennifer had the opportunity to start her own business in the market research and business analytics space. She first came into contact with Nielsen after helping to develop a product that was taken to market and acquired by Nielsen in 2007. Jennifer eventually moved into the process improvement space becoming involved in Business Performance Improvement (BPI) at Nielsen where she entered as a Master Black Belt. Eventually, Jennifer was placed in charge of Nielsen's BPI teams globally and has been working not only in process improvement but also in performance metrics, program and change management and learning and development for technology operations.