Executive Acceptance of Operational Excellence – Not Just A Pretty Rhyme

Introduction to Operational Excellence

For most of us, Lean is a common concept by now. By extension, we’re also familiar with the idea of continuous improvement; the way we run our business should ultimately be reflective of a chain of efforts to change for the better and reach more perfect efficiency.

That’s all well and good, but we’ve seen more and more businesses shying away from simply relying on “continuous improvement” in recent years and instead throwing around the term “operational excellence.”  While the two terms do ultimately work in tandem, and even though there’s some overlap, it’s important to understand where the two differ.

A good way to think about operational excellence is as the answer or endgame to your continuous improvement actions, it’s a state you want to attain through your workplace improvement endeavors. Unlike continuous improvement, however, where you’re simply trying to ‘always get better’, operational excellence has a more clearly defined point where it can be said you’ve reached your goals.

One of the biggest criteria for operational excellence is a horizontal and vertical (so throughout all levels and teams of a company) understanding of how workflow should look and how to correct problems when something isn’t flowing correctly.

This creates operational excellence because employees are now able to solve their own problems without relying on specialists or management, drastically decreasing downtime and putting them into a preventative rather than a reactive mode when solving problems.

Furthermore, operational excellence then frees up your management and executives to focus on advertising and brand/market expansion planning and projects. In short, operational excellence allows a company to achieve continual improvement while still having the resources to put an emphasis on bottom line and market share growth.

Operational Excellence Question Posed

Sounds pretty awesome, right?! We think so, but you might be surprised how, even with the proper training, it can be hard to get management and executives on board. One of the biggest problem any lean/six sigma/continual improvement/operational excellence project is going to encounter is the fact that they all sound like fancy concepts from ‘experts’ that sound great in theory but might not offer the tangible and immediate results executives are looking for.

i-Nexus CEO Grant Crow decided not to rest on his laurels in addressing this all-to-common problem, and took to the discussion boards of a LinkedIn professional group to both share and glean some helpful insights on the issue.

He asked how users cultivated “executive buy-in” for their own projects, and had a few suggestions of his own. As per usual, a few Lean strategies had their names shouted out more than once, but even more interesting were some more generally applicable concepts – not necessarily specific to Lean executive buy-in, but useful in many life/business areas. I thought these were the most worth reiterating for any readers who might be having trouble getting management and/or ownership behind their projects.

Here, let these LinkedIn posters drops some conventional-yet-oft-forgotten knowledge on you:


“First and foremost you have to answer the what’s in it for me (WIIFM) question. If you can answer that effectively and relevantly, then you will get buy in. That is a vague and relatively high level description (high level output Y), so you have to get deeper than that and translate that Y into actionable X’s.” – Quentin Gurney, LinkedIn discussion participant


One of the first things a good advertiser will do when he mentally steps into the shoes of his audience is to answer the question “What’s In It For Me?”, an element often shortened to WIIFM. In approaching your higher ups to get their support and backing on a project, you have to realize that you are, in many ways, taking the role of a salesman.

You have an idea or specialty that is known intimately only to you and your team (if executives already knew what you did they wouldn’t have hired you). Think of how you react to someone knocking on your door and trying to cold-sell you something; you’re immediately on the defensive, and you probably put up barriers without even thinking about to stop you from jumping into a wasteful or bad purchase.

When you come to a business owner and tell them something like, “We need to gut and re-organize section X of production for our continual improvement project” all they’re thinking about is how much down time it’s going to take, what money that means they aren’t getting in the short term, and why they should believe what you’re suggesting is necessary/going to pay off.

These are all fair concerns, and “continual improvement” or “operational excellence” are far too vague of a value justification to sell your project on. To overcome this hurdle, one user, Thomas J. Miller, suggests a “show and tell” approach.



This approach does make sense; quick, think back to the door-to-door salesman scenario!  If you know nothing about vacuum cleaners, then having someone tell you something has X units of suction and Y gallons capacity isn’t going to register as impressive – you have no frame of reference. If, however, the salesman pours a tub of superglue on your carpet, lets it harden, and then proceeds to vacuum the entire mess up in no time flat, well, you might just be ready to buy!

Executives without Lean or operational excellence training might not be able to understand why you are suggesting something until you draw out for them what the benefits will look like. Think about tangible metrics to illustrate like long term efficiency improvements, what exactly that would mean for the bottom line/profits, paid work hours, etc. Another big point to hit on is problems or resources – like those currently going toward defects – that can be re-routed into expansion and other preferable areas.


Plan Milestone Updates Before They Even Occur


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But even if you can sell someone on a plan, you need to keep them in that frame of mind long enough for the work to get done. To do this you should demonstrate your knowledge and instill confidence by showing that you know exactly what’s going to happen when, and before it even occurs.

This isn’t your first rodeo, you know how such projects go, so be able to tell your executives that you’ll be able to give them an update at a specific time. Instead of saying things like “Then when Task A is done I’ll come to you with a report,” go for “Task A will be completed on September 14th, at which point we’ll move those resources into Task B and I’ll have a report for you on the results we’re experiencing at that time, which will include… etc. etc.”

Then, of course, you need to follow through on these updates and timelines once you’ve pitched them. In this way you can help management feel continually invested and knowledgeable about a project as it progresses.

Based on the number of times it was brought up in the LinkedIn discussion, it’s worth giving Hoshin Planning an honorable mention. That said, as Gurney points out, these types of techniques are quite advanced. The implication of that is that management either won’t get it if they don’t have the appropriate Lean training, or they’ll already know what you’re talking about, eliminating the need for you to get them to “buy in” in the first place.

In general, simply remembering the basics of pitching a good idea, regardless of whether it’s part of Lean planning or not, will take you most of the way toward cultivating your executive support. When a hurdle can’t be overcome, however, don’t take it personally or let on to your perception that management is lacking in vision, simply chalk it up to experience and wow them the next time.

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