Getting Better On Purpose: Improving Processes, Leadership, and Talent

I was reading yet another article on leadership responses to the COVID 19 pandemic on the importance of “purpose”.  The “why” most call it.  For example, “Leading with purpose and humanity” was the headline in this particular article from McKinsey’s interview with Best Buy CEO, Hubert Joly.  It got me thinking about “why” we embrace Operational Excellence and “why not” look at it a little differently.

In our field, we frequently use “continuous improvement” to describe what we do. Just look at the number of CI leaders and programs in your own network. The tools, culture, and mindsets are all framed as in pursuit of “continuous improvement”.  Less waste, more efficiency, better quality, higher productivity are all worthy objectives, but do they really answer “why” these objectives matter? Why not use these challenging times to emphasize the rest of the OpEx story?

History provides many examples of companies pursuing continuous improvement but maybe not so great at improving the right things. Kodak, Blockbuster, Sears (for example) all saw changes on the outside overcome changes on the inside, and we know how that turns out. A narrow view of operational excellence (i.e., continuous improvement) was necessary, but apparently not sufficient for these firms.

What about today? Cardinal Health, Abbott Labs, Nationwide Insurance.  All strong and successful in their markets and members of the Center for Operational Excellence as an indication of their respect for and commitment to continuous improvement. But things are changing on the outside in 2020 at a rate few of us ever anticipated. VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is certainly in the house! [1]

So, what is an Op Ex leader to do? 

It’s time to look at operational excellence a little differently.  While I don’t want to knock-down statues of Deming, I am suggesting we start using language that challenges us to aim higher.  For example, let’s say we transform our “continuous improvement” orientation to “getting better on purpose” or GBOP. GBOP includes improvement, but suggests a broader interpretation. Today, it’s not just our processes that need to be better, but our talent and leadership as well. And adding “on purpose” gives us more than direction, it provides raison d'être.

“So what?” you might say.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I come to the field of operations from a career in strategy.  Sure, attention to detail is critical.  The metrics, the process, the tools, etc.  To guide us in going deeper into details, we have “five whys” to find root cause.  Makes sense in a CI world, but in a VUCA world we need more context.  For example, we might use “five whys” to go broad instead of deep:

  1. Why are we doing this? 
  2. Why does improvement matter?
  3. Why is any of this important, now? 
  4. Why not consider an alternative approach?
  5. Why is this important to me (or my team)? 

GBOP embraces the spirit of CI and provides additional context many of us need today.  The more remotely we work, the more important it is to know why we are working. 

That is why so many leaders are reflecting on their purpose and re-communicating their missions, visions, and values. They know these elements bind companies as communities more so than organizational hierarchies and work processes. 

Whatever the terminology, it’s time for operational leaders to step-up. For me, it’s not so much about the “why” as it is “why not”. Why not have operations step up and play a leading role through this recovery, not just a reactive or supporting one? Why not have operations more involved in seeing the bigger picture and exerting more influence on strategy?  Why not have operations more involved in choosing the goals and priorities of a firm? Why not have operations, where most of the people in most of the organizations are, be more involved with creating internal conditions (i.e. culture) that improve the odds of success for a firm.  Why not lead with Operational Excellence?

I welcome your thoughts!

   -- Steve Lundregan

[1] VUCA is an acronym first used in 1987 and based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, and stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. For more information, click here


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