What is the Role of the Business Leader in Operational Excellence?

It is one thing to understand what Operational Excellence is and the potential benefits by starting this journey. Also having a clear idea of the requirements and the preparation needed to achieve the desired results.  But where is the leader or owner in all of this? More specifically, what do they need to do to prepare themselves and define the role they will play in determining the success of Operational Excellence?

In my humble opinion, the biggest factor in how successful a business is rolling out an excellence programme sits squarely on the active involvement of leadership. I emphasise the word ‘active’.  This does not mean that the owner or manager does everything, but there are essential tasks they need to do on a daily and weekly basis. This is a contact sport, not something that can be delegated down the chain of command.  Yes there are roles different team members will play but at the end of the day the culture of a business is set at the top and created throughout the rest of the business.

The business owner and leader must have the capability and capacity to lead the process. It is essential to have the ability to be able to express and understand the value of the operational excellence journey.  They must understand the challenges, the ups and downs that come in that space.  Acknowledging the ambiguity at times - “We are striving for excellence, while we define what that looks like!”. 

There are a number of behaviours business leaders need to develop and put into practice when beginning this journey.  Not surprising, this begins with a focus on people.  Demonstrating the respect of people is the first and probably most important quality for a leader.  Respecting every team member at every level of the business that they have something positive to contribute and enable ideas and improvement opportunities to be implemented.

The other commitment that is critical is the most valuable commodity - time. Part of an effective implementation of an Operational Excellence journey is dedicating regular daily or weekly time in the diary where they complete Gemba Walks and go and be inquisitive in how the team are taking steps to improve their jobs, the systems and processes. This is all part of the Leader Standard Work process. This journey is not achieved from behind the desk, it is the result of the work completed right through the organisation.  If the business leader and leadership team can’t show interest and engage the team on a consistent basis, why the heck should others put the effort in?

Setting the overall direction, the true north is also a critical element of this journey.  Why is the company investing time and effort in all of this ‘excellence’ talk?  What is ‘Lean’ all about and how does it fit into the big picture?  You know these questions will be asked, so get on the front foot and have a well articulated plan to show and discuss with the team.  Even if this takes a lot longer than planned (because it will).  Get this right, make sure the rest of the leadership team are on board so everyone in the leadership group is working from the same playbook.

Before the rest of the company is up to speed, as a leader make sure there is 100% clarity in the story, the direction and objectives. It may be a case of consensus.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, otherwise nothing will ever begin.  Get a general agreement on the direction, practise the story and the dialogue the leadership team will use at every opportunity.  Make sure there is some mention at every meeting or gathering.  It may only be a 30 second reminder, but repeating the message, the purpose will go a long way to moving from words on a piece of paper to actions being achieved every day.

Overall, the role of leadership when starting and driving an Operational Excellence and Lean journey is simple, but hard.  It is simple in that there needs to be a clear direction and purpose set. In some organisations this can be a difficult achievement in itself.  But it is 100% essential.  Then you need the whole leadership ready to back up and support the message.  You need the leadership prepared to actively engage in the process. Ensure they are genuinely interested in what is happening, what steps are being taken by the team. Leadership is then required to be disciplined around time.  Making sure there is time to get out of the Board Room and see for themselves what is happening, what issues need to be addressed.  

Allocating time is the hard part.  It is very easy to let actions go for a week, which will turn into a fortnight, then a month.  It needs to be a fixed, valued appointment in their calendar.  A leader needs to learn to be a coach, not always the problem solver; the enabler, not the one doing the specific actions. This can be a real challenge for some people, especially if they have created the business and  there is a lot of specific, technical knowledge. Letting the team ‘do it their way’ and not just ‘the way we have always done it’ can result in some amazing results. This might be a case of letting the team fail safely - the best way for them to learn is to give something a go and not achieve the best results. It is mission critical to create and enable a learning environment across the business.


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