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How to Jump Start Your Operational Excellence Today

By Roger Price - April 25, 2017

jumpstart-improvement.pngA common challenge for many organizations is to develop an operational excellence deployment model that is sufficiently compelling to overcome the natural inertia (or outright resistance) that resides at the plant sites.  Many of us are familiar with the standard justifications for that inertia, including:

  •  “We tried a few years ago and nothing really changed.”
  • “We’re already running this plant harder than was intended…there’s not a lot of opportunity to get better.”
  •  “If you really want to change things around here, you need to spend money on new equipment or hire more people.”

So the question is, what can be done to help overcome these mindsets and attitudes so that the workforce will engage with operational excellence in a meaningful way?  In our experience, there are two key components of an operational excellence deployment that, when taken together, can fundamentally shift employee mindsets and attitudes.  Both are described below.

Open Their Eyes to What’s Possible

It’s important to understand that all human beings form beliefs and opinions based on their personal experiences and the information that’s available to them at the time.  To illustrate this point I’ll use a simple example.  

My three year old believes in Santa Claus in large part because:

(a) he has been told by people he knows and trusts that Santa is real

(b) there is evidence to support his belief (i.e., gifts from Santa arrive under the tree on Christmas day, Santa eats the cookies and drinks the milk left for him, etc.).  

As he ages and learns more about how the world works, he will start to question Santa’s existence:

1. How does Santa get to every home in one night?

2. How does he get into homes with no chimney?

3. If he eats all the cookies left for him at every house, won’t he get sick?

He'll eventually come to the conclusion that “Santa” is really Mom and Dad.  But if he were to remain at his current maturity and education level, he would likely go on believing in Santa forever.

Now let’s apply this concept to operational excellence

If your deployment team arrives at a site making bold claims about how operational excellence can drive a major step change in performance and improve working conditions in the plant, the workforce will naturally find those claims dubious if their experiences at the plant indicate otherwise.  The responses may sound something like the following:

  • “I’ve worked here XX years and we’ve never made more than YYY,YYY pounds of product in a month.  I don’t see how we’re going to do better than that.”
  • “This plant has been dirty the entire time I’ve worked here.  We run a dirty process and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.”
  • “We tried to 5S this place a few years ago but nobody would put their tools back where they belong so we gave up on it.”

These responses aren’t a sign of employees with a bad attitude.  Instead they represent the natural response from people whose experiences have conditioned them a certain way.  So you will need to give them new information and experiences that can counteract that conditioning.

Here are a few tactics for doing just that:

1. Organize a “go and see” visit

While it will need to be used selectively, this tactic is great for getting a group of formal and informal leaders excited about the prospects for operational excellence at their site.  

A well-planned site visit, whether to a “light house” site in your own organization or to another company’s site, will give employees the opportunity to see the visual effects of operational excellence on a plant and experience the cultural benefits through discussions with the employees who work in that plant.

2. Create a zone of difference within the site

Sometimes you will need to demonstrate that the concepts and tools can make a difference through a focused effort in one production process or department within the site.  Identifying the right area to create this zone of difference is critical.  Ideally, you can find an area that would benefit from a rapid application of the operational excellence model and engage a critical mass of site change leaders to partner with you in the effort.

3. Educate employees on what’s possible

When evaluating current performance, our natural inclination is to judge ourselves compared to past performance, which limits our ability to aspire toward greatness.  For example, as a runner who occasionally enters 5Ks, 8Ks, and other events of similar distance, my level of satisfaction at the end of each race is largely determined by my average pace compared to the best I’ve ever run at that distance.  

If I beat my best time, I’m satisfied.  If I don’t, then I’m disappointed.  I never consider my time compared to what would be possible if I trained properly, changed my diet, and worked toward the goal of being the best runner possible, and because running is not my livelihood that’s not such a big deal.

But it is a big deal when it limits the effectiveness of the plant sites.  Unfortunately, the workforce often perceives that the opportunity to improve is relatively small because their current performance compares favorably to past performance.  What they rarely consider is that, through the application of new concepts, tools, and practices (i.e., the manufacturing equivalent of training properly and eating right), they can drive breakthrough improvements that will take their performance well beyond historical benchmarks.  

And worse yet, they may not know the value to the business associated with a step change in performance.  So it’s incumbent upon those who are leading the deployment effort to educate employees about what’s possible and how it benefits the business so that they stop considering performance improvement through the lens of historical benchmarks and start considering it through the lens of what’s ideal.

Make the Deployment Experiential

A key to changing employee mindsets and attitudes is to help employees to understand how their existing mindsets and attitudes are negatively affecting the site.  This is particularly true for site leadership, who set the tone for the culture of the site through their behaviors each and every day.  For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into detail on the leadership behaviors that we believe to be essential to unlocking plant performance.  Instead, let’s stay focused on how to help leadership to see how they are constraining performance.

1. The Beginning

At the beginning of each site deployment, one of our clients would perform a detailed analysis of the culture of the site, what they called a “mindsets & behaviors” assessment.  This detailed analysis incorporated a combination of survey data, one on one interviews, and employee focus groups specifically designed to surface behavioral habits in leadership that caused friction in the organization or otherwise limited employees’ commitment and discretionary effort.

2. The End

At the end of this assessment, instead of just throwing the results into a slide deck as a leave behind, the deployment team would perform a “mirror walk” with the site leadership team.  They would commandeer a conference room and hang a series of posters that contained an unvarnished perspective of employees’ perceptions of the organization generally and leadership specifically. Then the deployment team would take leaders through the gallery of posters in small groups so they could see and discuss the feedback, both positive and negative.  

3. The Review

Once every leader had a chance to view and process the feedback, the deployment team would sit down with leadership to discuss the results further and help these leaders to come to terms with how they are perceived and what role their behavior has played in those perceptions.  This engagement would lead to an action plan delivered directly to the workforce for how leadership was to go about changing their mindsets and behaviors.

There is so much more involved in successfully leading a mirror walk than can be adequately described in a blog post, but pulling up for a moment, the “magic” in the above example is that it created an experience that forced leaders to reconsider their existing paradigm.  

By causing these leaders to reevaluate what they thought they knew about their personal leadership approach and how they are perceived, the company introduced the possibility that there is a different, more effective way to lead and manage the site, which opened the door to operational excellence.

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