It’s been another week, much like the many other weeks for me. In addition to running a couple of companies, working on a few projects and pitching others, and the routine management and engagement of the Operational Excellence Group on LinkedIn; I had a few more conversations with the leadership of Continuous Improvement or Operational Excellence (CI/OpEx) Programs at various companies (most in the Fortune 1,000).
Almost always, the CI/OpEx leader will tell me how strategic their program is; how important to the success of the company and how much value they are driving. They speak about all the really great things they have accomplished and are accomplishing. And they tell me how proud they are of their team – how they are consistently making a positive and indelible impact on the company. All really and truly good stuff.
However, and with very few exceptions, the conversation inevitably drifts to how the CI/OpEx program lacks the proper support. How they don’t have the funding to do what needs to be done. Or they don’t have the resources. Or there is a lack of buy-in – even respect – from the people who they are trying to help. They express frustration with seemingly being held back when they know they could do so much more, delivering positive results on a larger scale.
In the most extreme cases, they complain that the CI/OpEx program is being scaled back – or worse, eliminated – to cut costs.
When I press them as to why that might be, they mostly shrug their shoulders. They really don’t know why. Usually blaming it on some “corporate reorganization” or “reprioritization”.
I believe the answer is really much more simple and rather obvious; the CI/OpEx professionals are not working on what is strategically important to the senior leadership – the people in the “C-Suite”. Furthermore, I believe that in most cases, the CI/OpEx professionals don’t know how to speak with the senior leadership, using the language of business and not the language of CI/OpEx. And, even worse, the CI/OpEx professionals don’t know how to pay attention to the senior leadership, to actually listen and understand what is being said.
I realize that the previous paragraph might cause discomfort in some. But take a moment to pause and reflect. Does any of it ring true? Even just a little?
If not, wonderful. This obviously does not pertain to you. But if so, perhaps the following might be of benefit to you, your career, your CI/OpEx initiative, and your company
As an example, I was delivering a workshop on Operational Excellence at one of the largest hospital networks in the States a couple of years ago. The last segment was devoted to having an open discussion with and among the attendees to investigate challenges and how they might be overcome. They expressed that the biggest challenge they faced was a lack of support from the senior leadership. When I pressed them as to what they thought was important to the senior leadership, they didn’t have any real and definitive ideas.
After my session, the Vice President of Marketing for the hospital group presented the company’s vision for the future; the plan for growth (including the acquisition of another hospital network), the specific offerings that were going to be developed and promoted across the hospital network, and the challenges being faced with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare”).
After the Vice President’s talk, I stood up and recalled the sources of frustration expressed at the end of my session and told those in attendance; “Did you just hear what was shared? If you really want to make a difference, if you really want to be positioned strategically and become a force multiplier, if you want support and respect – then get on this guy’s calendar and understand what is needed to get the company from the present to its vision of the future.”
It really does make me wonder why so many CI/OpEx professionals don’t take the time to understand what the vision of their company might be and to start working towards that vision in concert with the senior leadership. After all, it’s no secret. Let’s look at a few examples.
Steve Jobs – Apple
Obviously a visionary and not shy about telling the world what he thought and where he was going. If you worked for Steve Jobs and didn’t know where he was taking his company, then you were either lazy or incompetent (probably both).
Tim Cook – Apple
And although he lacks the charisma of Jobs and the pace of innovation has slowed, Tim Cook also is an excellent communicator when it comes to the sharing the vision of the future and gaining alignment should be a relatively simple exercise.
Alan Mulally – Ford
But senior leaders sharing their vision of the future are not limited to technology innovators, the senior leadership of some of the oldest companies are happy to share their vision of the future.
Richard Davis – US Bancorp
Even the most conservative and stodgy of industries need to rely on innovation to remain competitive. As a CI/OpEx professional, are you listening? Do you know what is important to them?
Senior Leadership – IBM and Partners
If you can’t easily get on the calendar of the senior leadership team, maybe it’s as easy as watching them speak at a conference or company meeting (whether live or recorded). Maybe you need to discover what the future holds by reading the annual reports?
Therefore, I truly believe that the level of success or failure of any CI/OpEx initiative starts with the CI/OpEx leadership meeting with senior leadership and gaining an understanding of the future state of the company – their vision for its future.
But when we get that opportunity to have that meeting, do we kill any possibility for success from the moment we start speaking?
We have to remember, our success depends upon senior leadership’s ability to understand what it is we are saying and offering – so we need to speak in a language that the senior leadership understands and from their perspective, not that of CI/OpEx. And they also need to know how it will benefit them.
We have to be empathetic to those in senior leadership. We need to understand the challenges and pressures from the perspective of the C-Suite. After all, they have “sold” a vision of the future for the company to everyone; the Board of Directors, the Shareholders, the Analysts and Financiers, the Customers, and the Employees. And they have also sold these people on their being able to deliver on their promises. With these promises come awesome responsibility and incredible pressure.
As such, they need to make decisions quickly. Only in extremely complex scenarios where there is considerable risk will they allocate any appreciable amount of time. The norm is to have a briefing, perhaps see a presentation, listen to the recommendations, and make a decision – with this cycle occurring several times a day.
And if they don’t already know the language of CI/OpEx, you had better speak to them in their language – using their syntax and terms – as they don’t have time to learn yours.
Think of it this way; CEO’s love their sausages. They love the taste of them. They like to hear the crunch of the crust on a fresh roll and the zestiness of the mustard.
To the CEO, you are the sausage maker. And the CEO does not need to understand how their sausage is made, and they definitely don’t want to see what goes into making them. They just want to enjoy their sausage, and they just want you to deliver them – the results.
This means, for you to be successful, for you to be able to sell your sausages and for the CEO to want to buy them from you, you need to learn to love the CEO’s sausage like they do – from their perspective, in their context, and in their language. The CEO is your customer.
So I offer this “pre-flight checklist” for your consideration in the hopes it might help you become the strategic force multiplier we all hold in our mind’s eye.
Stage 1: Understand
1. Make an appointment to sit with the senior leadership, the closer to the C-Suite the better.
– If they are unwilling or unable to meet, this is a foreshadowing of the future level of success of any CI/OpEx initiative there. Proceed with caution.
2. Ask what the vision of the company’s future is. What is the vision for the immediate future, the mid-term future, and the long-term future?
– If they don’t have one, look for another job.
3. Shut up and listen. Don’t say a word. Take notes.
4. Ask probing questions. Priorities.
– Repeat Step 3.
5. Thank them for their time and tell them you will contact them in [specific time-period] to share your thoughts and ideas with them.
– Make sure to meet this expectation.
Stage 2: Gain Alignment
6. Collaborate as needed with your colleagues, do the necessary research, and develop your approach. Do not create a detailed plan at this point. Your goal is not to get an authorization, but to ensure that you understood what was being shared in Stage-1
7. Have the follow-up meeting as promised, making sure that the person or people you met the first time are in the meeting. Don’t meet without them.
8. Share with the senior team – in their language, not yours – how you will accelerate the achievement of the visions for the future they have shared with you.
– Unless the senior leadership is expertly versed in the various tools and methodologies of CI/OpEx, do not use the terms; Lean, Six-Sigma or Toyota. Do not name any of the tools or approaches. And, whatever you do, don’t speak in Japanese. You are not trying to educate them in your area of expertise or bring them to your way of thinking, but rather, you are trying to get yourself to their way of thinking so you can be of help.
9. Ensure alignment of your ideas and approach to the vision of the future, as explained by the senior leadership, has been achieved.
– If this is not achieved, you didn’t do a good enough job. Go back to Step-1.
Stage 3: Gain Commitment
10. Assuming this is the case, that your ideas align with their expectations, then go back and develop a detailed plan for how it will be achieved. Be sure to include; resource requirements (talent, apparatus, budget, time), and a detail of stages with waypoints.
11. Make your presentation, making sure that the person or people in senior leadership with whom you have previously met up to this point are also in the meeting. Again, don’t meet without them.
12. Gain mutual commitment. This means that you have set expectations of what you can deliver and the support you require to be successful, and the senior leadership has committed to providing that required support in return for the delivery of the expectations.
– Do not be seduced or bullied into reducing your resource requirements (especially time) while keeping all of the promised deliverables. In addition to setting yourself (and your program) up for failure, your apparent ignorance as to what it will take to support your program will cause you to lose credibility and the respect of the senior leadership.
– If commitment cannot be achieved at this stage, return to Step-1. It means that there is a mutual misunderstanding of the fundamentals, which needs to be resolved.
Stage 4: Execute
13. Proceed according to the plans.
– Here, you have to think of your senior leadership as a Private Equity firm. The tranches of funding and support from them will continue as long as you are successfully meeting your expected deliverables. Otherwise, expect the funding and support to be shrink to the point of being cut-off and the initiative (and your being involved) will be in jeopardy.
– This also means you need to guard against “mission-creep”. If the scope or priorities change, there will be an impact of the resource requirements and schedule. Don’t let this slide, otherwise the alignment (followed by the commitment) will be lost.
14. Make sure to loop-back to Step-1 no less than once per quarter to understand any changes that might have occurred with the vision of the future.
– If so, determine what counter-measures must be implemented to ensure the continuation of alignment and commitment. Failure to do this will put the initiative in peril and will eventually lead to their doom.
It is often written and said that CI/OpEx initiatives fail 75% of the time, maybe more. But I would argue that these initiatives rarely fail, if ever. Although I suppose it is possible, I have never seen a CI/OpEx initiative actually make things worse than they were prior.
What I do believe is that CI/OpEx initiatives fail to deliver the expectations that were set at the beginning of the initiative (if expectations were set at all). This lack of alignment from the start precipitates a lack commitment and results in a failure to realize the expectations set on all sides; senior leadership and CI/OpEx professional alike.
Following the roadmap I have offered is not a guarantee of success. But, if I were a betting man (and I am), I would wager that; if the roadmap I offered is not followed, it is a guarantee for mutual frustration, followed by a lack of alignment, then a lack commitment, then a killing of the initiative to save costs. Certainly, it will never have become the “strategic force-multiplier” we all believe it could/should be.
By Joseph Paris
Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.
He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 40,000 members.
- Connect with him on LinkedIn