Richmond J Hulse, managing director of XONITEK Consulting, looks at the characteristics a leader must have if an operational excellence programme is to succeed.

I recently attended a meeting of New York City chapter of the Operational Excellence Society and had the great pleasure of listening to a discussion by Michael Johns, a senior executive at FSBO (a consultancy) and former continuous improvement leader at Honeywell/ Allied-Signal, entitled “Effectively Engaging Leadership”.

Johns did an outstanding job netting-out the fundamentals that a CEO and his/her leadership-team need to have in place to ensure the highest probability of success for an operational excellence programme. Leveraging the acronym “CEO”, he highlighted what he believes these letters truly stand for: C for Commitment, E for Engagement and O for Ownership and creating a resultant “action plan” for defining and executing in each area.

He went to great lengths to convey that solid and obvious commitment from the company’s leadership to the improvement initiative was a prerequisite to success. This commitment cannot be just in the form of words, but must also be in deeds. There needs to be a collaborative approach to developing the charter for the operational excellence programme with stakeholders having the opportunity to contribute so that a sense of ownership, and the resultant accountability, can be established. And, above all else, there must be tangible commitment as demonstrated by the allocation of proper resources and appropriate budget.

But the role of company leadership is not over once the programme has been defined and deployment has commenced. For the initiative to maintain, even increase, momentum, leaders must continuously practice active engagement with those directly involved with effecting OpEx as well as those who will be incrementally influenced, and ultimately transformed, by the efforts of the programme.

Johns shared an anecdote which highlighted the impact of a CEO randomly engaging a Black-Belt at one of the facilities and showing interest in his work within earshot of as many people as possible. This seemingly random act of showing overt support incrementally energised those directly or indirectly involved – and helped in the transformation of the company culture so that each employee became consciously aligned towards the achievement of excellence.

It is at this point that ownership, and the subsequent benefits of a successfully deployed operational excellence programme, needs to occur; ownership of the role by the individual professional, ownership of the objectives and means of the initiatives, and ownership of the results. Johns stressed that ownership is never given, but rather taken. If the leadership creates a programme in a vacuum and then thrusts it upon people to implement, when it fails there exists a credible argument that it failed because of a lack of commitment and engagement – and the transfer of ownership never occurred.

During the meeting, I saw a lot of heads nodding – the audience could find little fault with the major hypotheses of the discussion, but rather focused the follow-on discussion and debate in exploring the details of CEO – with a great emphasis placed on deployment and the pitfalls to avoid.

One of the biggest (and most energetic) debates was related to how much involvement – and how much latitude and power – does the leadership relinquish to the stakeholders in the initial stages when the objectives and programme are being defined. There is a fine line where the leadership must make a decision to stop the analysis and begin to implement; but at the same time they need to ensure the ownership transfer occurs successfully.

If leadership gives too much control of the process away in hopes of building ownership, the operational excellence team might have a tendency to over-engineer the development of the programme until it is all-consuming. The risk is a programme definition and plan that is too big to approve and which is delivered too late. And, once proposed, any significant change will be interpreted as disrespect of the efforts and the necessary taking of ownership will not occur.

However, if leadership retains too much control of the process, the result will be an operational excellence team which feels disenfranchised. This will result in a delay in the programme development, as participation will be half-hearted, and a failed transfer in ownership.

By the end of the evening, it was generally settled that this transfer of ownership will not happen unless the OpEx group generally agrees with the integrity of the structure of the programme. And in the end, it became obvious that this is the most critical and also the most subjective point in the programme development. Proper navigation requires expert leadership.