Operational Excellence: Don’t run before you can walk

Operational Excellence is all about the persistence and strength to communicate your vision over the long run, writes Derek McIntyre.

There are many definitions of the phrase “Operational Excellence”, ranging from the simple to the highly technical. Each of us probably has our own picture of what we think Operational Excellence looks like, but how easy is it to paint that picture for our teams?

Operational Excellence boils down essentially to a focus on consistent and reliable execution in what you do as an organisation. To get your vision across, and to get buy-in at all levels as to how to achieve that vision – that’s the key.

Research by McKinsey and Co. indicates that more than 70% of business transformations, like Operational Excellence initiatives, fail, citing flawed leadership and poor communication as common causes.


Group of business people assembling jigsaw puzzle - What support are UK manufacturers asking for - image courtesy of Depositphotos.


It may be that senior management lacks understanding or has little expertise in Operational Excellence and sees it as a box to be ticked. Or it may be that leaders within the organisation do not model the changes they ask of their staff.

Short-termism is a common failing – assuming that by applying a rigid one-off set of rules quickly, Operational Excellence will somehow follow. This mindset is often the rock upon which well-intentioned Operational Excellence initiatives will founder.

Any initiative set in motion to drive Operational Excellence must begin from the understanding that to be successful, there needs to be clarity of vision, behaviours need to change, commitments need to be made for the long-run, and it must become part of an organisation’s culture.

To drive the cultural change, there needs to be belief in the vision and demonstration of that belief in day-to-day business.

What does success look like?

One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can equally be applied organisationally: ‘Begin with the end in mind’.

Business leaders will often concentrate too much on (for example) Lean’s waste elimination methodologies, or will jump straight into Continuous Improvement Mode, as various means to the Operational Excellence end, without giving any great thought to basic questions around “what, how, when and why”.

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Kevin Duggan of the Institute of Operational Excellence has said “Lean and Continuous Improvement are very good things. But the biggest driver of moving the operation from Point A to Point B, is knowing what Point B is.”

To build your vision, you need to know where the problems are: the things that keep you and your team awake at night. Consider a Gap Analysis – where are you now, and where do you want to get to?

To ensure buy-in with your teams, get them involved early in the process. Start with Brainstorm Sessions and Cross-functional Meetings and listen to The Voice of The Customer (both internal and external).

Compile a list: Identify the key gaps in the business, drive focus on them, and collectively define gap-closing actions that everyone can work with and support. These actions will be where Lean and Continuous Improvement can really come into their own.

Consistent communication

Leadership and management must be consistent and on-message through the course of the Operational Excellence initiative. Communicate concisely and frequently and provide clear direction and feedback on progress on these gap-closing actions.

As gaps are closed, bring the next one up from the list for consideration and closure. Very quickly the culture will start to change – for the better.


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As with all major initiatives, it surely makes sense to pace yourself. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by attempting to run the 26 miles on your first day out. So, it should be with your approach to your organisation’s Operational Excellence initiative.

Start simply and build up, celebrating success as the team gains confidence in its ability to execute evermore consistently and reliably, and the new way of working becomes further embedded in the culture.

Evidence of success will foster stability and engagement in the workforce as a whole – empowering your team members to identify, and more importantly participate in closing gaps, will drive a strong organisational culture more willing to consider new ideas in future.

Standards will improve in quality and efficiency as everyone engages with the new way of working and accepts greater responsibility and assumes greater accountability. Problems and issues which used to be sent up the management chain for resolution will now often be resolved much closer to source.

Fire-fighting small problems day-to-day becomes much less of a drain on resources, allowing more time to be spent on growing the business, and continually improving processes to the benefit of cost and profitability.

We have seen Operational Excellence initiatives soar, but we’ve also seen them crash and burn throughout our respective careers across many companies, but on reflection, communication and consistency need to be key to your approach.


Derek McIntyre is Director of The Improvement Partners Ltd,Derek McIntyre is Director of The Improvement Partners Ltd, and an experienced Operational Executive & coach who is as at ease with day-to-day operational issues as he is working at board Level.

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