5 Keys to Building a Strong Improvement Strategy

If you’re like me, the pursuit of personal fitness and health can be quite an interesting journey, much like an improvement journey. It's filled with peaks and valleys (overweight/underweight, strong/weak, tired/rested, toned/um, not so toned).

When I check in on my progress at some logical interval (beach season, New Years, etc.) I discover that I've basically reverted back to whatever tried and true method I know best in order to make a change. Things like cutting carbs, cardio, lifting heavy things, etc.

While these are all familiar methods for "getting in shape", they ultimately don't do a lot for the longevity of life. These things alone won't necessarily help me live longer or be able to stay active with my kids after I've retired. Despite my best intentions, without a great plan in place that I’m able to adapt and monitor, I often find myself stuck in the firefighting approach to fitness and never quite reach my vision of where I want to be.

So what does this have to do with Operational Excellence? Well, don’t we experience a similar phenomenon there as well? Let’s investigate.

What’s your vision for an ideal future state?

Just as it’s understood that being fit and healthy is a good thing, so too is it understood that Operational Excellence (OpEx) is good for business. However, does that really set the appropriate aspiration for achieving either? Not really.

This is why setting the right vision is so important. A vision of “Always being of sufficient mental and physical condition to care for my family in good times and bad,” carries so much more meaning than, “I’m trying to get in shape.” 

Similarly, “Maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage through superior operations management” defines a much more aspirational future than just driving towards, say $1.2M in efficiency savings. While significant, that savings is a means to an end, not the end goal.

This is exactly why it’s critical to take the time to establish a compelling OpEx vision, so you have a meaningful future state in mind.

What's your plan to execute your vision?

A compelling vision is ultimately just an academic exercise if you don’t translate it into a plan of action. This is where strategy setting comes into play.


The Big Idea:
Your OpEx strategy needs to clarify exactly what needs to happen in order for the OpEx function to progress against its vision and make your business successful.

Relating back to my health and fitness vision, if I want to be able to care for my family at any time, I need to focus on multiple outcomes. I need to be well rested (mentally and physically), balanced in both strength and conditioning, nourished but not overfed, and so on. With that in mind, I can then create my strategic plan to accomplish those things.

Could losing 15lbs help me get closer to that vision? Perhaps. But weight loss through familiar methods like diet and exercise is by no means going to take care of all of those things on its own.

When it comes to operational excellence, if your vision is to create a sustainable competitive advantage, then by definition, that can't be accomplished solely by a singular tactic.


To put it bluntly:
Improvement projects on their own, no matter how many, won’t ensure superior operations management.
Lean assessments, on their own, won’t deliver the immediate financial impact needed to fund the effort, either.

While all of these approaches can prove to be useful in some way, they’re insufficient as standalone efforts. That’s why it’s up to the OpEx function to set the right strategy for and with the business so that we don’t just fall back on what’s comfortable.

What does your strategy look like? 

While there are different approaches to developing an improvement strategy, the balanced scorecard and hoshin kanri being among the more popular, the output should be fairly standard.


The five key inclusions are:

  1. Focus on a core set of 3-5 strategic objectives. More than that dilutes purpose.

  2. Title the objective in simple, actionable terms. Instead of "Improve customer satisfaction", it should be "Reduce customer complaints due to X."

  3. Clearly describe what your current state looks like as compared to your desired future state.

  4. Identify a measure/metric/key performance indicator (KPI) that will provide clues to tell you if you’re winning or losing.

  5. Assign an owner to each objective to clearly identify who is accountable for it.

Many OpEx leaders already know the value of a well-articulated strategy because they are the ones helping the rest of the business to develop their own strategies. So perhaps the real guidance to be offered is to apply that same approach to the world of OpEx. It’s time we stop treating the OpEx function as if it somehow exists outside of the enterprise and therefore can’t benefit from taking its own medicine.

About the author

Brian Wilkins

Brian brings 15 years of sales and account management experience serving C-suite executives at Fortune 1000 organizations.