From Fancy Claims to Hard Reality

In the lead up to the 5th annual OPEX Europe summit, the official event blog will become home to some of the industry's most informed and influential voices. In this blog post, Business Transformation and Operational Excellence Executive Dr. Morphis Tsalikidis explores the patterns that often emerge during OPEX deployments and offers advice for ensuring that reality meets business expectations.

The Claim

Organisations often claim to deploy Operational Excellence (OPEX) programs to offer superior customer service at a competitive cost base; while at the same time establishing a culture of learning and continuous improvement. In this context, cost efficiency is not the only deliverable of the program and sometimes not even its most critical one.

As evidence of the above, OPEX Leaders usually highlight the massive training program initiated. All company employees and managers are expected to at least attend an Awareness class, with some of them also requested to complete a lower belt course (i.e. Yellow Belt or Green Belt). The rationale is that everyone should be able to speak the same language (and understand the same jargon), thus being part of the new culture created.

Program Sponsors claim that the OPEX program will be staffed with high calibre individuals, an indication of the program’s importance to the business and the support received. Quite often there is the explicit or implicit message that the program will catapult individuals to higher ranks within the organisation and become one of the paths (or the main path) towards future leadership positions.

The importance of OPEX professionals (i.e. Black Belts) as change agents is often highlighted in the training material developed – they are recognised as one of the key catalysts towards the cultural transformation envisioned. Moreover, OPEX professionals are expected to coach and train on-the-job the Process Owners, Supervisors and project team members. The aim is to help develop their problem-solving capabilities and be able to apply them (autonomously) in their day-to day activities. 

The Reality

Over the last 15 years, I had the opportunity to meet and exchange with many OPEX professionals either as part of my work, PhD research, or during networking events. Rather quickly, a pattern started to emerge regarding OPEX deployments that fit the above claim description:

  • Black Belts’ objectives were purely linked to the number of projects closed and the savings achieved. OPEX Leaders would have similar objectives for the entire program; plus targets related to the number of (business) people trained and OPEX professionals certified.
  • Although in most cases OPEX professionals were recognised as change agents, they would receive no specific training on how to influence key stakeholders, motivate teams, or engage with people impacted by the changes. A rather common practice was to simply include some PowerPoint slides regarding change management in the training provided.
  • At least 70% of the projects initiated would focus purely on cost efficiency, through headcount reduction. None of the projects would explicitly recognise the development of problem solving capabilities (of project participants) as one of its deliverables.
  • Projects were expected to be completed as fast as possible, while minimising the time dedication of the business resources to the various project activities. It was the responsibility of the Black Belt to find the solution to the problem, without disturbing too much the day-to-day activities of the business teams.
  • Most of the employees and managers that attended  Awareness or Yellow/Green Belt training did not participate in any process improvement project or activity. 
  • After the honeymoon period was over, the selection of OPEX professionals was predominantly driven by: a) the desire of the individual to join the program, and b) the desire of the functional manager to replace the above mentioned individual (most often a performance related desire).

The Advice

Be crystal clear on the main objectives for deploying Operational Excellence and design an approach that fits the purpose. If it is critical to achieve rapid cost reduction, then do not sugar coat the message. It will only create confusion, when the mismatch between words and actions becomes apparent. On the other hand, developing internal capabilities and establishing a culture of continuous improvement does not mean that challenging business objectives should not be met. However, it does require a structured approach to learning and development. Some key elements to consider: 

  • Distinguish between organisational issues that require quick resolution and the attention of an experienced team versus those that (albeit important) can serve as a learning experience for OPEX and business professionals.
  • Recognise that learning and building capabilities takes time and practice. People should have the opportunity to learn – apply – reflect - reapply in a continuous learning loop. 
  • Identify the managers and employees to receive OPEX training (Who, When, and What), as a result of continuous improvement projects and activities to be initiated in the short term. 
  • Create a safe environment for learning and development. Making a mistake or failing to address an issue first time through is part of the learning journey. People should not be wary, looking over their shoulder every time something happens. 
  • Problem solving, managing change, and acting as a coach require a diverse set of skillsets. The recruitment and development of Operational Excellence professionals should reflect this challenge and aim to develop both the analytical and people side of skills.

Over the years, I have come across a few robust efforts to develop internal capabilities and plant the seeds for a culture of continuous improvement. But this is the subject of another blog 😊.