Partnerships for Success in an Operational Excellence Program

OpEx is not a black box. In reality, it’s often an open floor plan with low-rise cubicle walls and everything visible. This is good. We don’t want to have our clients toss a problem to us and turn their backs to focus on what is really important to them while we solve the problem in a dark corner. We are looking for a shared partnership for operational excellence programs.

That partnership starts with a strategy… actually, multiple strategies.

  • The overall organization has a vision and strategy.
  • The operational excellence function partners with organization leaders to develop an OpEx strategy aligned with the organization strategy.
  • Finally, a strategy is developed for managing the partnership. 

Partnering is a bit like a marriage

In marriage and in operational excellence, partners enter into a two-sided commitment to work together to achieve shared goals. However, warm feelings and best intentions do not always deliver success. Using a process to manage partnering can be very helpful. I won’t even try to suggest how to manage a marriage partnership but will offer some tips for the strategy of managing a partnership for operational excellence success. 


Who is in the relationship?

Focusing on OpEx, the first step in this strategy-setting process is identifying who your partners are. Although OpEx is not the center of the universe, let’s put it there for a moment to look at the multi-dimensional perspective of partnering in improvement efforts. From your central position, partners will be:


1. Up and down:

Many partners will be at different vertical levels within your operational organization: work area managers and project sponsors you report to as well as operational team members, including those from a cross-sectional hierarchy of the organization.


2. Left and right:

Other partners are cross-functional team members who provide critical subject matter expertise for setting strategy, executing projects, resourcing, and addressing many other needs. These folks come from HR, IT, legal, procurement, finance, and myriad other functions. They might be external to the organization, for example, training consultants.


3. In front and behind:

Customers and suppliers are critical partners, especially when we think about the importance of managing improvement efforts as a flow rather than in silos. These positions may include both in-house customers and suppliers and also outside partners working for actual customer and supplier businesses.


4. Virtual:

This fourth virtual dimension can actually include people from any of the first three groups. It’s worth a callout, however, because the practice of non-colocation does bring a new “dimension” to OpEx efforts. Partnering will require management of long-distance relationships.


5. Strategic…or not:

In a marriage, it’s obvious that your spouse is a strategic partner, one who is essential to the effective functioning of the partnership. In an organization, there will be many partners, all contributing to the desired processes and outcomes. However, some of these partners will truly be strategic. It’s valuable to identify these strategic partners and develop specific accountabilities within the partnering process to shepherd the relationship.


The prenup or contract

Once you’ve identified who your partners are, one of the most important places for the partner relationship to start is with a contract. It may be called a service agreement, service level agreement, partnership agreement or other form of agreement. Keep in mind that this is a positive, not punitive document. It documents the objectives of the partnership, identifies the responsibilities of each party, and outlines the scope of time-based plans. It’s not there to say who gets what if the partnership dissolves.

The value of this agreement is that it helps both parties know that their needs and goals are included in the plans and will be addressed. It’s a demonstration by both parties that they are in a committed relationship working toward achievement of the shared critical success factors. 

Beyond the strategic elements of the contract, specific tactical expectations are laid out related to the way the parties will operate:


  • This includes details on frequency of face-to-face or virtual meetings and how the team will communicate, including expectations for progress reports and response times.
  • While it isn’t possible to identify in advance all the problems that might come up, it’s valuable to outline a problem-identification and problem-solving process.
  • Along with problem-solving plans, it’s helpful to have an escalation plan that either side of the partnership can use to raise concerns to the next level of responsibility with minimal delays and no hard feelings.

The team can use an onboarding process to get all players up to speed quickly. Start with meeting each other to understand the strategy, ensuring that systems are compatible for effective process management, and executing a deployment process to engage all members of the teams.


Who is the relationship shepherd? 

Only two people make a marriage, so they are the point people for communications. In a larger organization, however, there are likely to be multiple points of contact on both partnership sides. While these folks work together on day-to-day projects and communicate regularly, it’s valuable to identify a resource on each side of the partnership to shepherd the relationship on an overall basis.

Relationship shepherds monitor the progress and the process of the partnership and address any issues before they become problems. They’ll regularly check for compliance with the process agreement and monitor and reward progress toward the shared goals. If progress seems to be slow or the team members are heading off-course, the shepherds will meet to assess the situation and create a shared plan of attack to present to their superiors, if needed.

Part of the shepherding role involves influencing rituals and routines for all the partners involved. At some point, the partners from different organizations begin to work as part of the same unit, just as partners begin to work together in marriage. 


A successful relationship boils down to communications

Partners need to have effective communications. In the planning phase, it’s important to have push-pull discussion to agree on strategy, scope, and tactics. In fact, working with partners to develop ideas that they feel strong ownership of can be a powerful key to acceptance and success.

Ongoing communications deal with the details of getting the job done as well as the pleasantries of a mutually beneficial relationship. Problem-solving communications are based in shared respect. The mature atmosphere is of cooperation and not competition.


Celebrate the relationship

Just as you would include regular celebration in a marriage, so too should you include celebration in the partnering relationship. This includes the big celebrations of achieving milestones and critical success factors as well as regular celebration of day-to-day operational effectiveness and progress. 

As part of the partnering process, pause to reflect on the relationship itself. What are some of the areas of improvement the partners can work on to make the process more efficient, the progress more rapid, and the results more valuable? What are some of the gains made as the relationship has matured?


And in the end?

Without a plan, trying to manage partners can be as difficult as herding cats, as painful as pulling teeth, and as successful as flying a kite without any wind. In other words, just like so many other processes in operational excellence, in work, and in life, the better you plan and execute the process of partner management, the more likely you’ll really pull it off and achieve shared goals.

Without a strategy, sadly, partners can follow the same path as many unhealthy marriages, with lots of bitter feelings, fingerpointing, dysfunctional behaviors, and ultimately a separation.

Utilizing a sound strategy for managing partners creates an environment that is similar to a healthy marriage. Participants work together to achieve goals and address hurdles along the way, leading to a long and happy relationship.

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.