3 steps to getting your Senior Management backup

Boosting your Continuous Improvement (CI) strategy from good to great

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Chris Dando

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As Operational Excellence professionals we all agree that increasing awareness of what CI is and equipping individuals with the tools they need to make many small improvements to their daily practices, creates value not only for the present, but more crucially for the future. In my opinion though, this is not enough.

More often than not, I see organisations overlook up to 90% the potential they could reach when implementing a CI or Operational Excellence programme. Why? Simply because they fail to recognise the importance of involving their Senior Management team and expect that their Head of CI/Improvement or Lean team will ‘sort it all out’, forgetting that on their own, these professionals do not have the authority to make change truly valuable and sustainable.  

Depending on your organisation’s culture and your Senior Management team’s background, getting their seal of approval is not always an easy task. I have regularly witnessed C-Suite professionals considering Operations Excellence as a function that sits aside the rest of the organisation, as opposed to being a transversal function that needs to be involved in the organisation’s overall strategy.

So, what is the key to changing their mindset? What traps do you need to avoid and how can you put the gears in motion so your OpEx function is finally aligned to your organisation’s objectives? This article reflects on my real-life experience supporting Operations Excellence practitioners and C-suite professionals in their efforts to create an over-arching vision and shape it into a long-term strategy to drive tangible business benefits.   

STEP 1: Grab C-Suite attention

You most probably have already knocked at your Senior Management team’s door to gauge their appetite for CI and OpEx practices. Did you leave the room feeling that you got your message across? Or did you feel frustrated that despite your best efforts in explaining the benefits of fully involving them within your Operational Excellence strategy, you still felt like you weren’t succeeding? If the latter, I would suggest your replay the meeting in your head, however this time picture yourself sitting behind your Senior Management’s desk, listening to your original arguments, but considering their objectives and mindset as a Senior Leader.

The truth is, although you share the same objectives (they want to improve service, increase productivity, efficiency, quality, etc. as much as you do), if they have had very little exposure to an Operational Excellence methodology in the past, you will experience a real culture shock.

Think about it: which Head of Operations wants to have to go back to their CEO to tell them
“We have identified over 80% of waste. But this is great news because now we know where we are failing, and we can work on how to remedy it!”.

Their fear is that your findings are not going to portray their leadership in a positive way and this is the main blocking point. So unless you manage to get your Senior Leader team to see past their first natural reaction you will never manage to grab their attention and get them on board.

So how do we crack the code, I hear you ask…?  My first advice is to focus on the tangible benefits of Operational Excellence and Continuous Improvement - remember that ultimately you have the same objectives, including: 

For your customers

For your colleagues

For your business

Improve delivery performance

Create new development opportunities

Lower your cost base by removing bad cost

Increase customer satisfaction

Build long lasting new skills

Creating standards that people adhere to

Improve quality and reduce defects and rework

Improve engagement

Instilling better controls in the right places

Increase speed of turnaround and processing times

Ownership of their own work and ability to improve it

Improving the visibility and transparency of performance

Reduce WIP


Increasing competitiveness

Most importantly, my second advice is to place emphasis on one point: integrating a CI methodology within the organisation’s overall strategy will be much more powerful than carrying on as is – why? Because making sure that every single employee, at their own level, focusses on the same business objectives and on finding solutions to the same business issues means that your Senior Management team will finally get the traction they need to get their operations moving in the same direction, in a fast and efficient way. This is the key to grabbing their attention and being able to start working together at a more strategic level.

STEP 2: Resist the temptation to oversell the benefits for your organisation

So, you finally have your Senior Leader team’s attention and they are willing to give it a go. This is fantastic right? Now the real work can start! At this point though, I would urge you not to be over confident. You will be judged on results and you need to be mindful of your Senior Management team’s expectations. Keep the following in mind:

#1: It’s a marathon not a sprint

In most people’s mind, lean and CI are about improving processes and adapting the technology, tools and techniques they use to improve their team’s performance. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Your role is to ensure that your Senior Management team understands that change will not happen just because waste has been identified and processes have been changed. It is actually the other way around: it’s only once your organisation has embedded a sustainable CI Culture that you will see some valuable change happening. This is the difficult part; the one that requires you to work with your Senior Leaders on defining your strategy and how to best deploy it so your organisation is effectively aligned towards them.  It’s the one that requires you to challenge their vision of leadership to enable every single level of the organisation to work more effectively and the one that requires that together you agree on the foundations activities that will create a CI culture and make people feel confident and capable of solving their own problems – and roll them out across the whole organisation.

A strategic transformation takes time – typically 1 to 5 years to implement. It is an enterprise-wide change, driven by a strategic agenda and will end up involving every single team in your organisation so that change is driven top down as well as bottom up. This can be challenging for some Senior Leaders who can sometimes find it difficult to shift from a ‘follow the leader’ mindset to a more empowering approach.

Your role is to ensure that your Senior Management team understands that change will not happen just because waste has been identified and processes have been changed. It is actually the other way around: it’s only once your organisation has embedded a sustainable CI Culture that you will see some valuable change happening.  

#2: Start small

Don’t attempt to revolutionise your whole organisation at once; doing this will only set you up for failure. Instead, agree with your Senior Management team on how you will break down your strategic transformation into manageable chunks. Having a plan and an understanding of how much you will be able to bite off in the next year will provide clarity and help you manage their expectations.

STEP 3: Align your CI strategy with your organisational strategy

For your CI strategy to be successful, you need to agree with your Senior Management team on what good looks like and how you can effectively align your organisation towards each objective.

  • Think quality over quantity
    Again here, it is important that you manage expectations and guide your Senior Management team through the process. Focus on having no more than 6 strategic objectives that are forward looking and with a clear implementation timeframe. Engage in a conversation around what the objectives are and challenge them: are they incremental or breakthrough in nature? Are they SMART?
  • Measure & track with clarity
    Clear Targets To Improve (TTIs) are key to the success of your strategy deployment. Agree on the measures and on what good looks like with your Senior Management Team. Then link each TTI to your plan to enable you to check if you are on track or if some adjustments are required. Most importantly, make sure that these TTIs have been cascaded down throughout the organisation to the appropriate level, to ensure every single individual is aligned with your strategic objectives.


In conclusion…

For your CI approach to be optimal you must first create a system in which people can flourish. Of course, CI can be implemented bottom-up but to be really successful your CI approach needs to be fully sponsored and supported by your Senior leaders – this is where bottom up meets top down and where you can really achieve some great results. By doing so, they will discover a new approach to leadership and management: the ability to empower people to solve problems and to leverage their skills to greatly accelerate business performance. Only then will you drive breakthrough change for your organisation and deliver on some of its most challenging operational issues.