From eBay to Volvo, Shell to Google, all the big brands were out in force for the 2016 PEX conference in Amsterdam last week. With more than 200 Operational Excellence (OpEx) professionals and companies including eBay, Volvo, Shell and Google in attendance, all the big brands were out in force for the 2016 PEX conference in Amsterdam last month. With more than 200 Operational Excellence professionals and vendors under one roof, you could be forgiven for expecting to leave with the secret formula for success in your notepad. On the contrary, the unofficial theme of the week seemed to be about sharing the shortfalls and lessons learned from less than perfect OpEx strategies ̶ most notably, in relation to employee training and support.
While the strategic priorities and executional plans shared throughout the week varied considerably from one company to another, there seemed to be a general acknowledgment of an ‘engagement gap’ between those working in senior Continuous Improvement (CI) and OpEx positions and the operational teams responsible for implementing performance and process improvements on the ground. Several inferences were made throughout the week that the lack of board-level buy-in of CI strategies was causing projects to struggle.
eBay – a company that has matured from a modest start-up to a global retail giant which transformed the online shopping landscape in under a decade (who now list an epic 1 billion items for sale at one time) – benefit from a leader who leads from the top on CI. eBay CEO David Wenig takes an empowering and forgiving approach to change, with mantras such as: ‘If everything is right, we are not trying hard enough’ and ‘celebrate failure when it’s done the right way’ setting the tone for an ever-evolving business.
Of course, eBay have a whole stream of activity in place to improve services to buyers and sellers alike. eBay’s Head of Business Excellence – Sascha Fuhren – shared insights into their plans to improve services for sellers from reducing hold times for inbound enquiries to improving first- contact resolution rates. They also highlighted their seller community services enabling knowledge to be passed between eBay vendors themselves, independently of eBay seller support teams; but what about the people tasked with actually delivering improved service to eBay customers and sellers?
A missing piece in the CI puzzle for eBay, they admitted, was upskilling their customer/seller service teams to a point where they could reduce issue resolution times themselves – not by waiting for the recommendations of the sophisticated ‘eye tracking’ project they’ve undertaken to improve user experience, but by simply listening to the customer. Candidly, they shared a painfully awkward recording of an especially fast-talking customer service representative so absolutely determined to deliver his service script that he failed to listen to the customer explain his problem. Perhaps there is a subtle hint in there for CI leaders too? If you don’t listen to the people you are there to help, you won’t deliver a great solution.
In a panel discussion featuring change and improvement leaders from prominent European brands including E.ON, A1 Telecoms and Johnson & Johnson, again the issue of engagement and an increasing need to close the gap between CI teams and the leaders and operational teams they serve led much of the debate. They noted the problem of managing ‘change fatigue’ among staff who feel they have made change upon change only to hear about – yes – more change. A shift in communication strategy is needed, they all agreed, and more efforts invested in educating staff that improvement is part of BAU, not a finite project managed ‘over there’ by the Transformation/CI team.
Erik Gillet, Executive Director for PEX, and Paul White, Head of Lean Academy, both of UBS have worked hard to gain leadership buy-in for the change programme within the bank and therefore have established a clear purpose for the business’s change. UBS aims to be as mature as automotive within 5 years through a structured approach that all leaders buy into and all staff contribute towards.
Beyond this shared vision and company-wide impetus for change, organisations that thrive in a CI environment are those who don’t rely on new systems or software to improve performance. Extending on this point, E.On’s Head of Operational Excellence – Lisa Norcross – warned that the road to change does not always lie with the IT and Systems experts in your business. Sometimes, real-world improvements might mean working within or around the constraints of your systems – for the time being at least. Where there is a mature continuous improvement strategy in place, you’ll find that the middle-managers who are ultimately responsible for cascading business improvement strategy into measurable objectives for their teams feel genuinely informed and empowered. In order to get there, however, they need coaching and support to enable them to make the right small but impactful changes whilst some of the longer term projects are worked through at senior levels.
Yr Gunnarsdottir – Global Continuous Improvement Leader for Shell, was one of several speakers to admit that to achieve any real traction with their operational teams, they as CI leaders had to be prepared to take a step back from their change roadmaps and simply listen. How can process mapping begin until you’ve truly listened to the problem? Not only was this a practical need for Shell’s CI team to gather the information they needed, it was a question of engagement ̶ asking, listening and pausing before collaborating (not dictating) on the improvements required. E.On’s Lisa Norcross had alluded to the same by emphasising the importance of GEMBA walks to their business, ensuring that continuous improvement strategy addressed real day-to-day issues encountered by service and delivery staff.
Shell use face-to-face workshops to delve deeper into the process issues compounding non-productive time (NPT). In the case of their IT team, this uncovered some very easy-to-solve problems (such as printers always running out of paper) that could be fixed swiftly and deliver immediate benefit. These low-key changes are the transformative improvements that can be easily overlooked with a top-down approach to Operational Excellence.
So, if there was one action that could be taken from the observations of all these experts in the field, what would it be? Perhaps it would echo the recommendation outlines in ‘The Future of Jobs’* report at the beginning of the year: that a key area of focus for CI leaders should be on improving problem solving skills at every level of the workforce, so that the need for change and process improvement becomes something employees expect and accept so that see your continuous improvement strategy truly evolve into a cultural norm. As Rui Mota, Head of the Centre of Expertise in Continuous Improvement for SONAE concluded: “Change does not come naturally to most of us. Routine is natural. We must work at change’”
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