Operational Excellence Methods: Yes, You Do Need To Make A Choice


If you’re a hands-on operational excellence practitioner or aspiring to become one, choosing your tactics for improvement efforts is probably where you start to get really excited. But wait! First, of course, you need to have your OpEx vision and strategy in place.  This includes identification of specific deliverables and metrics, the “what ” that you are committing to achieve in working with teams of operational resources.

In the step of choosing methods, you’re defining the “how” you will go about achieving those goals. You’re probably itching to pull an OpEx tool off your tool belt and get to work.

But wait! Don’t start reaching for tools just yet. After all, if you’ve been doing this OpEx work for a while or simply had several immersion classes, you’ve probably amassed a pretty extensive set of tools.

However, tools alone are not enough; you need to choose the method you will use within the established culture of a customer-focused, problem-solving environment to drive business results.


The construction analogy to OpEx methods

Choosing your operational excellence approach or method is a bit like a contractor getting ready to build a house. Eventually he’ll have his team pick up their hammers and saws, but first he needs to define how he’ll work with the people, materials, budget, and available time to get the job done.


SEE ALSO: Creating an OpEx Budget that Delivers ROI

If the contractor doesn’t articulate his game plan upfront, he’s likely to have his workers scratching their heads, unclear about what they need to do or each worker going off and doing his own thing, building something that’s likely to blow over in a strong wind.

Like the contractor, you need to articulate your method to ensure a sturdy structure. Your choice of method will help you:

  • Determine the training that you need. For example, more technical skills or more team skills?
  • Move forward without false starts and “re-dos.”
  • Keep everyone aligned on your path to your end result.
  • Align efforts with the culture of your organization and the requirements of your industry.
  • Help people understand how things fit together, so you can avoid complaints of “flavor of the month.”

And if you don’t articulate your OpEx method?

If you don’t have your OpEx method articulated before you start down the execution path, you can have significant problems. Using the home building analogy, consider these possible problems:

1. Measure once, cut twice 

Just like a builder who doesn’t take care making requirements clear upfront, without an agreed method, your first attempt can miss the mark and the work will need to be redone.

2. Every room a different color

Without a good understanding of the big-picture plan, workers head off and “do their own thing,” resulting in a sub-optimized or even dysfunctional end result.

3. No occupancy permit 

If a finished construction project doesn’t meet the local building code, it’s not deemed fit for use. Similarly, your well-intentioned improvement efforts might not deliver usable results. For example, if you need to meet ISO standards or specific FDA requirements but your process doesn’t match the prescribed approach, it simply won’t be certified.


Choices for Operational Excellence Methods

What are your choices for “method”? You’ll find many: 

Quality Methods

Total Quality Management (TQM) is in some ways, the granddaddy of quality improvement methods. The approach might include a Deming PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycle, a 7-step problem solving process, Japanese Quality Circles, or Shewhart’s Zero Defect statistical process control approach. All these philosophies and methods engage the workforce in embedding quality into processes and products.


Six Sigma

Six Sigma is the philosophy/method/metric of striving to eliminate process variation, thus driving out defects. The method uses the DMAIC(L) approach.

  • Define the project with a charter articulating the true problem or issue.
  • Measure the current state and articulate the desired goal using a reliable measurement system that will determine degree of success.
  • Analyze the situation to find root cause, define alternatives for solutions, and predict outcomes.
  • Improve the operations following a specific action plan and validate results.
  • Control the improved process by putting in place training, procedures, and ongoing monitoring to ensure the gains are sustained.
  • Leverage the methods to other relevant areas within and outside the organization. While this step is optional, it can be a big time- and money-saver and lead to breakthrough benchmarking advances.


Lean, based on Japan’s Toyota Production System, strives to eliminate waste or non-value-added elements in a process and product. Lean uses a five-step cycle:

1. Value

Determine value in a product family from the customer perspective.

2. Value Stream

Map the value stream to the customer, including all the activities, both value-adding and not, and eliminate the value-added steps where possible.

3. Flow

Optimize the value-adding steps so the product flows smoothly to the customer.

4. Pull

Use a signal from the customer to pull product through the value stream when it is needed, eliminating inventory.

5. Perfection

Continue these steps until all waste is eliminated and the customer is receiving perfect value.


Theory of Constraints

Theory of Constraints identifies a bottleneck or constraint in a process and focuses on improving that constraint, then repeating with the next process bottleneck and the next so that the overall process is improved in significant stepwise fashion. The simple philosophy of five focusing steps is presented in an entertaining novel ,The Goal , by Eliahu Goldratt. Specific tools, such as reality and other tree diagrams are articulated in Goldratt’s other books.


But wait, there's more...

Other approaches with some variation include World-Class Manufacturing (WCM), Total Productive Manufacturing (TPM), Business Process Reengineering (BPR), and more. While any of these approaches might be a good fit for your organization’s needs, it’s important to choose and communicate the approach upfront so that workers don’t feel like they are experiencing a “flavor of the month” application of an alphabet soup of quality tools without an overarching plan.

Remember that all this information that OpEx practitioners know and love might be new to others in the organization. It’s difficult enough for a typical adult worker to learn something new while trying to do his primary job; learning multiple approaches, or worse, bouncing back and forth between multiple approaches, can be downright torture.


Making the best choice to match your organization’s needs

Six Sigma and Lean are the predominant methods employed in U.S. manufacturing and other business organizations. While staunch proponents may claim that one is far superior to the other, in fact, the two methods can work well together. Some organizations have merged the two methods into a “Lean Six Sigma” approach that leverages process steps and tools from both.

As you make your decision, think about the organization’s culture and activities. If you have multiple processes with measured specifications and variables, the data-driven approach of Six Sigma might be a good fit. If you already have a customer-focused business, Lean can fit in nicely to provide optimization.

If you are going after an ISO or other certification, the certifying body might require a specific TQM approach. Do your OpEx leadership homework to establish the approach before you send others off to gear up for the execution.


The wait is over…

Once the higher-level decisions are made about OpEx vision, strategy, and approach, execution can begin. Now you can break out the tools!

Your specific problems or opportunities and your selected approach will lead you to the best tools for each step of the process. Let’s imagine you are building that house and decide to apply the Lean method for your construction OpEx approach. You might use some of these tools:

1. Value Stream Mapping 

Value Stream Mapping can help identify the most efficient path for construction and delivery of the home to the customer with best utilization of resources while eliminating non-value-added activities (waste).

2. The 5 Whys 

The Five Whys can be a quick and helpful root cause analysis method when team members identify a problem on the work site.

3. SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies)

SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies) is great for rapid changeovers, for example, when workers are moving from drywall to spackle to primer to paint.

4. 5S

Using 5S to keep the work site organized will help workers keep track of their tools…instead of losing them between wall joists.

5. Visual Management

Post a Visual Management review board on the site so everyone can see at a glance the status of interdependent events.

6. Leader Standard Work

Use a daily and weekly Leader Standard Work checklist to ensure that standard procedures for safety and quality are available and used, that efficient daily meetings keep workers informed, that materials are on-hand before each day starts, and that other required tasks are executed regularly and consistently.


7. Kaizen Events

You can even use Kaizen events for continuous improvement blitzes in the construction industry, as Veridian has done successfully in building homes in Wisconsin. 


Talk with an EON Opex expert to learn more

About the author

Nancy Bach

Nancy Bach has spent more than 20 years in the industry as a quality and operational excellence practitioner and manager. In private consulting, she creates and delivers a Lean Certification course, provides Green Belt training and works with multi-functional organizations to develop strategy and implement process improvement.