Thoughts on Operational Excellence

2017-04-30 Management Culture

Sometimes for me discussions about Operational Excellence sound like discussions about teenager sex: Everybody is talking about it, nobody …

The other day I was wondering again: What is Operational Excellence and why should you have it?

For me Operational Excellence is the ability of an organization to make (initially small and then over time bigger and bigger) promises and keep them consistently and reliably within budget (time and money).


Clearly … in a given market place or business segment assuming all things equal the organization with the better Operational Excellence will outperform its competitors.

Initially the promises can be small. The secret to success is to always keep them. If you develop the bad habit of making (big) promises and then do not deliver on them you are heading towards trouble.

It is my experience that a lot of organizations (and that means the individuals in these organizations) do not know, how to make promises and how to keep them. It starts with basic stuff (and with basic bad behavior), e.g. making to many promises and loose track of them or make one or two big promises with too many dependencies, when you have not developed the understanding what these dependencies are and how to manage them (because over time you want to develop the ability to make promises, that depend on others to help you).

Basic stuff is for instances good time management, good self discipline, good ability to organize yourself (personally I am a big fan of Getting-Things-Done (GTD)). Write every promise down. What is it that I am committing to do? By when? What is the definition of done? Who do I depend on to get this done (and do these people know, that I depend on them/that I expect a contribution/deliverable from them (by a certain date))?

You could say that good Operational Excellence is just good Project Management (or the ability to set and manage expectations (along the lines of under-promise and over-deliver)) and that is probably true, but it is good Project Management applied not only to “Projects”, but to everything you do and every behavior you exhibit.

Now … we all live in the real world. Occasionally things go sideways. For me that is not a problem. I obviously prefer to make promises and keep them, but the second best thing that you can do is to tell the people that depend on you (very) early that you will not be able to keep your promise and work with them to develop a Plan B. What is obviously very bad is to forget about a promise or tell somebody on the day when you were suppose to deliver that you cannot keep your promise, because it limits the ability of the organization to react to the broken promise. Last but not least, if you break a promise (and as a result create pain for the organization) … apologize publicly (breaking promises silently creates bad behavior) and articulate what needs to change to make sure you can keep the promise next time (change yourself or change your environment).

Finally, you can ask: Why is this important? Why should you have Operational Excellence? Why should you try to build it/develop it? Why should you work to make it a craft?

For me having Operational Excellence is important, because it creates trust. If you have it, the employees will trust the company and the customers will trust the company and that is from my point of view what we are really after when we talk about “Let’s improve Operational Excellence”.