The Great Improvement Scale: How to Set Your OpEx Scope

When we talk about “scope” in operational excellence, the important concept applies at two levels. One use of scope occurs at a project level, where scope is an essential part of the project charter, and helps to keep the project on task and in control for budget and timing until its completion.

Today’s topic, however, is about a higher-level scope, aligning with the entire OpEx vision and strategy. We can break this into several dimensions dealing with “where” and “when.”

The “where” of scope

In general, “where” can be defined with XYZ coordinates or length, width, and depth dimensions. When we think about scope, we can consider the three "where" dimensions of an enterprise as well.


1. How long up and down the flow will our OpEx strategy apply?

Will the vision and strategy relate to simply operations or will we stretch upstream to include suppliers? Some advanced organizations even incorporate downstream customers into OpEx plans.


2. How wide across the organization will we focus?

Will we include teams and projects in non-operational functions, such as HR, IT, legal, and finance?


3. How deep will our strategy focus?

Will efforts involve fixing already-identified problems or go much deeper and dig into the core processes of the business to reengineer structural areas to meet today’s needs with fast-paced changes.

The “when” of scope

Here we’re not talking about specific project delivery dates, although they are an important part of the OpEx plan, articulated in project charters.

At the overall level, we’re talking about the maturity of the organization’s operational excellence commitment. This is not the same as the age of the organization itself, for OpEx maturity can apply to a brand-new startup, a Fortune-100 company that has been around for over a century, or a that has risen to brilliance in the last decade.

Instead, maturity scope refers specifically to the degree of commitment for operational excellence efforts:


1 to 3 Month Commitment: Getting Started 

This is enough time for a single project. It’s long enough for a sceptical manager to say, “Well, we tried OpEx (and it failed),” so he can avoid any future commitment. On the other hand, this short time frame could be an earnest commitment to start OpEx with very limited available resources and achieve a quick-win that justifies the further investment.


1 to 3 Year Commitment: Building Momentum

An organization that is having trouble with customer complaints, poor quality, or excessive waste might start with this short-term commitment in order to make process control improvements and lead-time reductions so it can have more predictable outcomes and become competitive with other organizations that have already implemented OpEx methods and delivered improvements. The organization is in a learning mode.


3 to 5 Year Commitment: Accelerating Accomplishments

With this medium-term commitment, an organization is making the investment to not only fix problems but also make advances that put it ahead of the competition. The organization is in a solid application mode.


7 -to 10 Year Commitment: Sustaining Scale

A long-term OpEx commitment means the organization is ready to integrate OpEx vision, strategy, methods, and behaviours into the core culture of the business. In fact, the goal to be truly focused on the customer and achieve world-class performance can be a driver of a major turnaround or a disruptive change in the organization. The organization is achieving mastery.


Clearly, these time frames start from time zero and extend for months or years. The initial focus will transition as the organization makes forward progress. As part of the planning process, work on defining the current scope from day one and the transition plan for the months and years to the eventual scope.

The “why” of scope change

Heraclitus said, “change is the only constant.” You might wonder why it’s valuable to define the scope for a 7- to 10-year time frame when you know the world will become dramatically different during that time. But this defining scope step is important in a changing world for several reasons.


When stakeholders and OpEx practitioners come together to agree on scope, they are establishing a shared commitment to a future path. That relationship and dialogue set the stage for continuing discussion when there is an eventual need to make modifications as reality changes.

The long-term scope defines the needs for investment in resources. When people are trained in the methods needed for OpEx applications, their skills are generally transferable, even if the strategy and tactics are tweaked over time.


However, if those needs are never defined in an initial scope, the resources won’t be on hand and won’t be trained. Starting from scratch in the future can have high costs and time delays, both to acquire people to fill resource needs and to provide training to ensure they have required competencies.


A few words about "scope creep" 

"Scope creep" shows up commonly at the project level. It is amazingly easy when enthusiastic OpEx resources are working in close partnership with clients to let scope change as customer needs change or as hurdles arise.

When progress is made, it’s human nature to get excited and ask for and agree to a bit more. When problems arise, again human nature looks for quick fixes or game-changers to stay on a positive path forward.


Put it in writing

A project charter can help clients and OpEx providers work together to “just say no” or make resource adjustments to accommodate any agreed change. Unfortunately, many projects don’t have articulated charters or have slapdash efforts that don’t really dive into a critical discussion of project objectives and tradeoffs. 

The same thing can happen at the higher enterprise level. Resources may be asked to commit to unachievable goals in quantity or timing. Again, written documentation and ongoing negotiation are needed to keep OpEx vision and strategy in alignment with overall business needs.

While it’s common, and perhaps appropriate, to think of scope as a limiting constraint to prevent scope creep, defining scope can also lead to powerful expansive thinking. Merriam Webster provides one definition of scope as a “space or opportunity for unhampered motion, activity, or thought.”


But don't set it in stone...

At the same time that you define the scope for your OpEx efforts, recognize that the very nature of operational excellence demands that it be responsive to changing needs for continuous improvement and breakthrough thinking.

Use scope wisely to help manage strategy and tactics. When a customer needs change or opportunities arise, redefine scope as needed in concert with your clients to drive true operational excellence over the long term. 


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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.