Scaling Up Excellence

How’s your process excellence initiative going? Frustration and confusion everywhere, pummelled by unpredictable and unpleasant events, the stench of failure in the air?  So far so good, then. That’s according to Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, Stanford professors whose research convinces them that ‘organizations that scale well are filled with people who talk and act as if they are in the middle of a manageable mess’.

Scaling is fraught with risks and uncertainties. Even the best leaders and teams recognise that muddling through can be inevitable, sometimes for months, while searching for the best way forward. Scaling stars have grit. ‘It’s not simply a marathon. It’s like running a long race where you don’t know the right path, often what seems like the right path turns out to be the wrong one, and you don’t know how long the race will last, where or how it will end, or where the finish line is located’.

It’s refreshingly candid advice, and Scaling Up Excellence is full of it.  On a seven year journey that started with a Stanford management education program on ‘Customer-Focused Innovation’, Sutton and Rao set out to explore The Problem of More:

“Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence – there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their weekdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places. They also emphasized that the Problem of More (which they often called “scaling” or “scaling up”) wasn’t limited to building customer-focused organizations; it was a barrier to spreading excellence of every stripe.”

Scaling Up Excellence is a thoughtful, easy-to-read and intensely practical book about successful business transformation and innovation: how to start it, lead it, nurture it and sustain it. Continue reading

Soulful Operational Excellence

iStock_000023558527LargeIf Operational Excellence (OpEx) and Lean Sigma are too often associated with a sense of heartless oppression, what would be soulful OpEx be? Is there a recipe for a wholegrain honest-to-goodness OpEx that everyone can believe in?

I think so – and there’s a step that we could take to nudge it to become the new normal.

There’s a wide spectrum of definitions of Operational Excellence. Some are crude, defined simply in terms of resource efficiency and its impact on the bottom line. Others seem ethereal.  But many start by acknowledging that people aren’t simply just another resource, and that the means matter just as much as the ends. Continue reading

When Operational Excellence Is Bad Karma

iStock_000018852459SmallA slightly uncomfortable weekend with two family members whose work leaves them on the receiving end of ‘operational excellence’.  I drove home rehearsing again the morality of what I do.

Both have blue-collar jobs in household name organizations (with, I happen to know, substantial Lean and Six Sigma programmes).

One – I have to hide identities here, for obvious reasons – works in transport and logistics.  Over the last three years, his job has been relentlessly analysed and ‘optimised’.  He’s fit – a keen Sunday cyclist – but now he arrives home exhausted.  Every minute of his day is programmed, every capability fully stretched all the time. And there’s continual pressure to do unpaid overtime to get the work done.

That relative at least still has a full-time job. The other, who works in retail, was effectively forced to sign a ‘flexible’ contract, under which working hours are pretty much variable by the employer at will. So he might learn this afternoon that he has been given a four hour lunchtime shift tomorrow, only to be sent home at 12:30 if things are unexpectedly quiet.

I’m sure that the Lean Sigma teams driving these changes are proud of what they’ve achieved. This is operational excellence diligently honed to drive out every scintilla of waste.  There’s absolutely nothing left to squeeze.

I’m not claiming that Lean Sigma in the wrong hands is a tool for oppression (Discuss). But it seems to me that we need consensus on a richer definition of operational excellence, a less clinical framework in which success looks beyond simply the elimination of waste.

Both employers in this case – and these are middle-of-the-road organizations, far from unique – should be worrying about how to reconcile their cost-cutting achievements with their proud boasts about Corporate Social Responsibility.

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10 Feb 2013   Social Business: Finding Meaning At Work

Making Sustainability Stick

True story – and I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t heard it myself…

The global head of a Lean/Six Sigma team was explaining why a presentation to his senior leadership team didn’t go entirely brilliantly. After years of leading performance improvement projects, he’d come to see that what really mattered is sustainable improvement.

He knew how difficult it is to make cost cuts stick. He had seen for himself what McKinsey described last year: that many cost-reduction programs are “illusory, short lived, and at times damaging to long-term value creation”. And that only 10% of cost reduction programs show sustained results three years later.

So he was pitching Nimbus to his exec team, as the platform upon which to build sustainable operational excellence across the enterprise. But in the Q&A there had been some unexpected resistance, focussed on how disruptive and expensive change would be. After some dialog, the underlying objection came out:

“Yes – but if we go down this route, we are going to have to keep all our documents, everything in fact, up to date!”

You might expect that the exec who said this was taken for questioning by the Chief Compliance Officer in a corporate dungeon. But it went unremarked and was taken as legitimate. It was left to our hero to note that keeping things ‘up-to-date’ might not be a bad idea anyway (this is an FDA-regulated organization).

Accenture - The Sustainable OrganizationReading the The Sustainable Organization, published this week by Accenture, it’s easy to run away with the theory and forget how far this is from quotidian reality in many organizations.

You can’t build a sustainable high performance culture overnight. The organizational process maturity that delivers sustainable continuous improvement is a set of capabilities that can take many years to develop. One vital provision for the journey towards a culture of continuous excellence – to borrow Nestlé’s famous phrase – is a process platform. But nothing can happen without vision, understanding and leadership. And, in far too many organizations, it’s folks at C-Level who have yet to join up the dots…

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