A key to success in any Operational Excellence or Continuous Improvement program will be found in the way opportunities for improvement are harvested and prioritized; and how well the projects are managed and evaluated.
I have written several articles over the past few years on what it takes to successfully design and deploy an Operational Excellence (or Continuous Improvement program).
In my article, “Eulogy of a Continuous Improvement Program”, I share my thoughts on why many of these programs fail. The most common “root cause” for programs failing is the efforts of the program are not aligned to what is important to the company and the program is subsequently starved for oxygen. In such cases, the programs are cut way back (or eliminated outright) because doing so “saves costs”. This tells me the program was never viewed as a value-creator. Rather, they were considered a nice to have, not a need to have. And as a result, they were expendable; easily jettisoned and not missed.
If you don’t know what’s important to the company and what’s not important, just look at what the senior leadership is working on. Whatever that might be is what’s important. I shared this notion in my article “CEO’s and Their Sausages, Learn to Love Them Like They Do”. Whether you want to believe it or not), the C-Suite is the customer of the Operational Excellence Program and we need to keep the “Commander’s Intent” always in the forefront of our minds.
In another article, “Build Organizational Capacity and Capability – for Free”, I share how an Operational Excellence Program will never cost an organization anything if properly constructed. It will only drive real value to the bottom line. One pointer is that, instead of “students” being offsite working in a classroom building bicycles (or some other fictitious project that is irrelevant to the company), the students worked on projects that directly benefit the company for their “practical” training as they learn the “theoretical” See figure below.
And lastly, in my article entitled, “Scaling and Sustaining Your Education and Training Program”, I offer my thoughts on how to scale a decentralized Operational Excellence Program that relies on building muscle (in the form of trained personnel who have additional capabilities in addition to their primary role) embedded at the point of presence as opposed to concentrating the talent in some corporate body or department.
In this manner, the program scales by having more resources spread across the organization and is sustained because it becomes part of the organization’s culture and has no single point of failure (the Director of Continuous Improvement, for instance). See figure below.
But I have never shared the importance of constituting a Project Review Board and the role it plays in the success of an Operational Excellence Program or the details of its purpose and function. This article will fill that gap and hopefully your efforts will be better (and more successful) for it.
The Project Review Board. The primary mandate of the Project Review Board is to ensure the efforts of the Operational Excellence Program remain aligned and prioritized to the Organization’s vision of its own future and serves as the governing body that gives structure to an Operational Excellence Program for the projects that are to be delivered.
Although leaders of the Operational Excellence Program skilled in the methodologies are expected to be on the Project Review Board, their presence should not be overweight. Rather, the preponderance of the Operational Excellence Review Board should comprise primarily of those executives and leaders who represent a cross-functional spectrum of the organization and who will serve as advocates of the business’ interests. They should include representatives from all locations, business units, business functions, and so on…
It is important that the project review board not become a bureaucracy that slows the improvement process. Instead, the Project Review Board should be an accelerant for improvements to take place. As the governing body, the Project Review Board is ultimately responsible and accountable for the success of the projects that are pursued.
The responsibilities of the Project Review Board are as follows;
Building Awareness and Harvesting and Prioritizing Opportunities. The first thing that must be done at the execution phase of an Operational Excellence Program is to build awareness of the program’s existence and purpose across the entirety of the organization’s workforce so they can become mindful that the program exists and there is an opportunity for them to be a part of the change. To accomplish this, the Project Review Board must;
- Create a protocol for harvesting opportunities. In the execution phase and before anything else is done, the first step is to create the process for capturing the opportunities for improvement from the employees that will be the result of the launch and announcement of an Operational Excellence Program. Nothing will suck the wind out of the sails faster than creating a bunch of excitement but having no way to capture the enthusiasm. Make sure this is in place before you go further.
- Build Awareness of the Program. In conjunction with the Senior Leadership of the company, Operational Excellence Leadership Team and the Project Review Board are responsible for ensuring the messaging of the Operational Excellence program aligns with the organization’s vision of the future and that efforts are being made to build awareness of the program and its ambitions across the entirety of the organization; the purpose for which is to build awareness that an improvement initiative exists and the protocols for reporting opportunities for improvement. Such efforts to build awareness can include; a placement in the company newsletter, announcement board, perhaps a short video, and so on.
- Harvest Opportunities for Improvement. Capture the opportunities for improvement as reported by the employees. Collaborate with the reporting employee as appropriate to gain a full understanding of the opportunity. Beware of managers that might try to stifle or sabotage the program by discouraging employees from reporting opportunities for improvement. Create some mechanism so that the employee who reports the opportunity for improvement gets an acknowledgement that it has been received by the Project Review Board. This feedback to the employee should also include a detail of what will happen with the suggestion (a proforma detail of the protocol will satisfy this requirement) and that it will be scored according to the metrics established (which are also shared), prioritized accordingly, and that the employee might be called upon to provide further details.
- Score Accepted Opportunities for Improvement. Each opportunity for improvement should be geo-coded for location, business function, department, and so on. The opportunity should also be given a weighted score for the various business factors that are measured such as; i) alignment to the organization’s vision, ii) expected business impact, iii) complexity, iv) resource requirements (time, talent, budget), v) social and environmental impact, and so on. In this manner, the opportunity can be more properly prioritized in the project queue.
Project Selection through Completion. Once awareness of the Operational Excellence Program and its intent has been established, its time to get to work.
- Select Opportunities for Improvement. The Project Review Board, in collaboration with the Project Leads, will review the available opportunities for improvement and match the best opportunity to the appropriate Project Lead as the Project Leads become available.
- Approve Opportunities for Activation as Projects. The Project Review Board will approve and authorize the effort and confirm the Project Lead. The Project Review Board, at its discretion, may suggest and collaborate with the Project Lead should the Project Review Board believe an alternative opportunity for improvement should be prioritized. Each project should have a Sponsor (the person who stands to directly benefit from the project), a Project Lead (the person who will manage and progress the project), and a Mentor (a person who support the Project Lead and will be the liaison between the sponsor and the Project Lead). The approval of the Project Review Board will occur before any work is done on the project.
- Red-Team Project Plan. The Project Lead will develop an approach and plan for the project and expected results. The Project Review Board will “Red-Team” the proposed project to vet the project approach, plan, and expected results. The purpose of Red-Teaming is to challenge the plan and consider that which might not have been considered. The Project Review Board needs to remember to attack the plan, not the person presenting the plan (and the person presenting the plan should remember that the criticism is about the plan, not themselves).
- Approve Project Charter and Activate Project. The Project Lead will take the results of the Red-Team exercise under consideration and present the Project Charter (which includes the revised Project Plan) to the Project Review Board for approval. Assuming the Project Review Board is satisfied, the Project will be approved and activated. If the Project Review Board remains dissatisfied, then the Project Leader will have to refine until the approval is obtained.
- Provide Support for Activated Projects. The Project Lead will report progress of the project on a periodic basis; with “periodic” being determined in collaboration between the Project Review Board and the Project Lead. And the Project Review Board will provide support to the Project Lead as appropriate. It is important not to have meetings for the sake of meetings and each meeting should have an agenda and expected take-aways identified.
- Debrief Project Results. When the project is completed, the Project Lead will perform a debrief (an exercise critical to the health of the Operational Excellence Program) with the Project Team to relive the project and capture any lessons learned. Only those who materially participated in the project are allowed in the debrief as it is an opportunity to have the honest conversation about the project and to build trust among the teammates. Members of the Project Review Board should not attend the debrief unless they materially participated in the project, and then only as a project member and not a member of the Project Review Board.
- Project Report-Out. The Project Lead, with the Project Team, will collaborate to produce a Report-Out of the project to the Project Review Board. This will be the official memorialization for the project and will tie-back to the Project Charter as appropriate. The Report-Out should minimize the reference to individuals and specifically not call-out individuals for their lack or performance nor accolades for superior performance as doing so will cause team members to be less forthcoming and otherwise erode the trust that is intended to be built as a function of the debrief.
- Defend Project to the Project Review Board. The Project Lead will defend the project in front of the Project Review Board (much like a Masters or Doctorial thesis is defended in University). During this defense, the Project Lead will review the Project Charter and the result Report-Out results; emphasizing what worked, what didn’t work, what the actual results were, any opportunities for improvement (do-overs) they would consider next time and why, and so on. There is no “winning” or “losing” in the defense of the project. There is just a candid reporting of the going’s on, and lessons learned.
- Capture Wisdom to Organization’s Body of Knowledge. After the defense of the project, the Report-Out and any notations from the Project Review Board are memorialized to the organization’s Body of Knowledge and meta-tagged so that the experience and wisdom that was captured can be retrieved and applied to future opportunities for improvement which might be similar so as to not start from scratch; with the expectation being to replicate the experience (same as except), not duplicate (considering no two opportunities for improvement are expected to be exactly the same).
- Select Next Project! With the Project Lead now available, the process starts again. The Project Review Board’s responsibility here is to ensure that Project Leads are always working on a project. Should the Project Review Board see that a Project Lead is not working on a project, they will make an inquiry as to why this is the case. Failure to do this will result in the failure of the Operational Excellence Program to; i) to attain its stated objectives, ii) achieve the estimated return on investment, iii) be the accelerant of the achievement of the organization’s vision. Indeed, the program will have become a “nice to have” and not a “need to have”.
Launching an Operational Excellence Program is a daunting task and not one to be taken lightly as detailed in my article “Eulogy of a Continuous Improvement Program”. At the end of the day, it all comes down to planning, preparation, the “readiness” of your program prior to its being launched, and the periodic self-audit to make sure the efforts are still in support of the organization’s vision for the future. After all, the vision is subject to change from time to time.
We all have notions of what success will look like, but your program cannot be built on notions if you expect it to survive; not to mention, achieve its success criterion.
But I guarantee you – regardless of the notions and the dreams – someone, someday, will come down from finance and ask what tangible benefits the Operational Excellence Program has driven to the company. And wouldn’t it be special if you could just point to all the improvements that have been delivered, how much is raw cash-savings have been realized; but most important, how the Operational Excellence Program has been impactful and has accelerated the achieving of the organization’s vision of the future. Indeed, how the Operational Excellence Program brought the future closer, faster.
About the author
Joseph Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy development and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations. His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.