One of the most common causes of operational excellence efforts sliding off track is leadership misalignment. This might be lack of agreement between stakeholders and practitioners, strongly differing opinions and direction within the Operational Excellence team, or even nominal leadership alignment that is actually just lip service.
Before discussing how to deal with these situations, let’s define what leadership alignment means and why it’s so important.
Leadership Alignment Related to Operational Excellence
Some call this alignment “talking the talk and walking the walk.” On the “talk” side, operational excellence staff and stakeholders in the affected operational areas are aligned when they’re expressing the same strategy, vision, goals, plans, and reactions in their messaging about improvement efforts and organizational matters. Their words show support for the efforts and give the genuine impression that they are on the same team.
Going farther, on the “walk” side, leadership alignment requires engagement. Operational and Operational Excellence leaders work together to plan improvement scope and resources in lockstep and to determine how to adjust scope if needed when things go better or worse than expected. Operational leaders conduct visits to the workplace (Gemba walks), often accompanied by OpEx leaders, to see, discuss, and reinforce improvement efforts. Similarly OpEx leaders tie into cross-functional leadership discussions so they can better understand current and future business situations and help to address problems or leverage opportunities.
Operational leaders tend to manage departmental or silo areas and logically work very hard to maximize their unit’s operational performance. Operational excellence leaders often work across multiple departments in a flow mode, with the goal of maximizing customer value. This matrix introduces opportunities for mismatched goals. Part of the OpEx leader’s role is helping operational leaders understand the value stream within the flow so all local goals are set to maximize customer value. At times flow optimization may seem to give sub-optimized local results. Nevertheless, this linear alignment up and down the flow is important for overall organizational success. Cross-functional participation in a strategic deployment process such as Hoshin Kanri can help to achieve this alignment.
As a recent SmartCEO article states: “A leadership team is aligned when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose.”
Imagine that you are building a car and you make and polish each piece of the engine until it shines, but you never test and adjust the engine to make it operate at top efficiency as a whole. It’s not likely to work as well as it could. In fact, Stanford professor Charles O’Reilly and others studying leadership in healthcare “found that medical department performance was not affected by any one leader’s (CEO, medical center leader, department leader) effectiveness but rather, it was only when leadership effectiveness at different levels were considered in the aggregate that significant performance improvement occurred.”
Front-End Alignment, Not Just For Automobiles
Alignment is most likely if it can be built in from the start, the front end. The first step in leadership alignment is identifying which people should be included. These may be hierarchical operational leaders as well as functional leaders (such as finance, marketing, and others) along with OpEx leaders. In some cases customer or supplier leaders may even be included.
In addition to naming the people and functions, complete an alignment assessment for each leader. Outlines his or her feelings about improvement efforts, note any existing engagement, and discover major points of resistance. Then identify the customized “sales plan” needed to win each leader over to OpEx engagement and ensure alignment.
How Do We Get Leadership Alignment?
Alignment doesn’t happen magically. OpEx leaders often have important foundational work to do across the organization:
- Identify cultural barriers related to OpEx and utilize change management as needed to address resistance and build enthusiasm.
- Engage operational leaders in leader standard work, such as Gemba walks. Modeling improvement behaviors will shortcut their learning curve.
- Ensure all operational leaders understand the goals, concepts, and methods of OpEx. This may involve extensive training and mentoring. Cross-flow leadership training in Six Sigma Green Belt, Lean Leadership, and other OpEx areas will not only provide necessary skills, but also establish a teamwork precedent in applying OpEx methods that will carry over to the workplace.
- One of the best ways to thoroughly learn a subject is to teach it. Have operational leaders participate as teachers in workforce OpEx training to reinforce their own learning, demonstrate their commitment to OpEx, and model desired OpEx behaviors across the organization.
- Introduce or facilitate a policy deployment process, such as Hoshin Kanri, that drives alignment.
How Do We Know We Have Leadership Alignment?
United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” Of course, he was speaking about pornography, but others might say the same thing about leadership alignment. Although Justice Potter was an esteemed lawyer and judge, he wasn’t an OpEx professional. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher measurement standard in assessing leadership alignment and identify how we can know that it exists.
These are some of the specific observable artifacts that show leaders are truly aligned:
- A focus on the customer and on customer value is a stated value across the organization and given more than lip service. Customer metrics exist and are improving.
- OpEx has a “place at the table” for strategic and tactical planning and policy deployment. They’re engaged in the process, not handed goals and a finished policy and plan for implementation.
- OpEx and organizational leaders meet regularly to review performance and plan future activities.
- Measurement, quality, and process improvement are jointly owned, not seen as “that’s what those OpEx people are accountable for.”
- When times get tough, OpEx isn’t pushed to the side. In fact, OpEx leaders are fully engaged to help with creative methods in gap closure activities. Leaders across the organization continue to work in sync for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
Just as you get your car tuned on a regular basis to make sure it will continue to run well, leadership alignment needs to be checked regularly. If these artifacts aren’t clearly visible, it may be time for a tune-up.
Dealing with Misalignment
Even the finest-tuned machine can shift out of alignment over time. Any developing lack of agreement between leadership stakeholders and operational practitioners must be addressed quickly. Diverging messages and actions at the top can cause stagnation or dysfunctional activity throughout the organization.
As noted, misalignment may take the form of stated agreement that is only given lip service by leadership, conflicts between OpEx and functional/operational goals and actions, or even differing directions within the OpEx team.
To address these issues, the process completed in the original front-end assessment is repeated. However, additional root cause efforts are likely needed to understand why the targeted leaders are or have become misaligned. Personal incentives may have been set up inappropriately (from a flow and customer value stream perspective), leaders may be discouraged with a slow rate of return from OpEx efforts, pressures may be limiting leaders’ desire to spend time on things related to OpEx, especially if they don’t deliver immediately. As in all problem-solving efforts, it’s important to do the work to determine specific root cause, not just assume these or other specific causes.
Whatever reasons are discovered, OpEx leaders need to address them with process and communication skills to get things running again smoothly. The finely tuned organization with aligned leaders can win the race in its market.