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A Quest for Operational Excellence is a Chance to Concentrate Expert Minds

I attended an IQPC Operational Excellence (OE) event recently, and was struck by its widely applicable themes, even though the case studies were drawn from Oil & Gas — quite naturally, since the venue was Aberdeen. An OE initiative makes space for new ideas, it was explained. For a company, the initiative offers hope that the struggle against loss-making and inefficiency can be overcome, heralding a brighter future based on good practice, good vibes, and hence resilience against market stresses. But, we learned, in our two days of insightful presentations and roundtable discussions, the OE initiative places heavy responsibility on leaders to create the right environment, not for management to drive a revolutionary cart through existing structures, but to give the workforce at all levels space to express themselves — especially those evangelists of change within.

Evolution comes from the people: that’s evolution, not revolution. Employment of soft skills by the leadership, like clear communication and diplomacy, taking the company step-by-meaningful-step through change are as important as any new ‘systems’ that are ultimately brought in to help the leaner company sustain its new self at the end of the OE drive.
 RowersThose soft skills come into play from the start, as leaders first assemble a steering group comprising a cross-section of experts, managers and enthusiasts that will be commissioned to develop a vision for a better organization; and then provide this group with a “lovable purpose” that all can warm to and hold on to through the journey. The journey will be objective but inclusive and, for most, exciting and rewarding. “What’s in it for me?” — the question in each employee’s mind — must be answered thoughtfully and meaningfully to keep everyone motivated even when the going gets tough (as it surely will). The aim of OE can often be a two-part aim: reduce costs (by X) AND increase productivity (by Y). A good solution will address all potential sources of inefficiency, such as persistence of inappropriate standards, over-complicated procedures, skill shortages, and absence of fit-for-purpose, integrated systems.

There is an area of inefficiency, I noted, that was not highlighted in this event but is relevant as it simultaneously addresses both parts of a dual OE aim: it’s about the “best fit” of an expert employee to his or her assigned tasks. It is simple to imagine a leaner, more agile company in which the most valuable people — the ones with the key skills and knowledge who ultimately create bottom-line wealth — benefit from training, crisper procedures and leading-edge software. But, if the job descriptions of such experts are not optimized as well, an OE opportunity is lost. Further benefit can be gained by devolving certain tasks from the expert’s daily routine to less expensive yet still competent and industry-aware support staff. This liberates experts, allowing them to devote more time to their outputs in the form of critical operational decisions and actions. We call the specialist tasks that experts can devolve necessary evils (because they are a source of cost yet unavoidable if critical work is to be achieved), and the time they consume Necessary Evil Time. I’ve put together a quartet of posts about this concept, starting HERE: these explain the rationale behind Knowledge Process Outsourcing, a potent OE tool applicable at any level of an organization and part of the armoury of leaders charged with bringing new ideas, sustainable change and resilience against market pressure, and even minimizing lay-offs.

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