Larry Fast
February 15, 2017

The Fast Lane to Operational Excellence

Screenshot 2017-02-15 14.39.51.pngFor those of us old enough to remember, we have been reading about the "Barriers to Operational Excellence" in one form or another for, oh, 30+ years now.  During my early career days Continuous Improvement (CI) started as the quest for Just-In-Time (JIT), World Class Manufacturing (WCM) or the Total Quality Management (TQM) days of the 1980s; and later the Toyota Production System (TPS), Lean, Lean Six Sigma or  Operational Excellence since the late 90s.  Oh there's been Agile, TPM, and other less used versions of alphabet soup--but most of them represent the same (CI) Journey.

It's frustrating to note that the barriers to excellence are mostly unchanged from the 1980s which was a period of enlightenment, learning and trying new things to improve and grow the business.  Customers moved up into their rightful place as a high priority and businesses enticed their employees with the promise of improved job security if they engaged and helped with the journey to excellence.  Well, we all know how that worked out for so many US companies.  Similar outcomes followed in other developed countries around the globe.  So why are we still talking about and writing about this elusive goal of CI and the culture it takes to achieve it?    Because so few companies are actually achieving and sustaining excellence. It still seems to be as formidable a challenge as starting a colony on Mars.  Every company leader whose company is "faking it" by running Kaizen events, doing 5 S and talking the talk should be mad as hell.  I sure am!

Seriously, I've been in businesses that set arbitrary goals that "the plant has to do 20 Kaizens a month".  And that is a major objective.  This is ridiculous.  What are the major issues?  In what priority should we attack the most important opportunities?  How will we use scarce resources to improve?  Instead, too many companies are punching their ticket that, "Yes, boss.  We're doing Lean.  We're doing 20 Kaizen events a month."  And the best the boss can come up with is "Hey that's great.  Just keep doing what you're doing".  And then the leadership team wonders why they can't find the improvements promised on the income statement, balance sheet and customer service report.  It's a mindless circle.  And, since all leaders live in a fish bowl, all of the employees smile at the circus and keep doing what they're doing.

So here we go again writing about the barriers to achieving and sustaining excellence.  But this time I'm focusing on just four high level issues.

  1. Leadership Failures by senior executives who have failed to provide the high expectations necessary to create and implement the strategy of CI as a must-do priority The Board of Directors (BOD) is complicit in this for not ensuring continuity when there are changes in the C-Suite.  There is much more to be said about these failures which I will expand upon in my workshop "The Dis-Continuous Improvement Journey"  at the BTOES World Summit in Orlando, FL on March 21st.
  2. Lack of Collaboration (Functional Silos) throughout the business. There are simply too  many separate agendas and lack of alignment with what should be one of the top three corporate strategies.  To optimize functional or individual business performance, while sub-optimizing the total business, is selfish, counter-productive and a pitiful example of leaders who are not capable of thinking holistically about the business.  Yet these functional silos still thrive in most of the companies I've visited over a few decades now right up to today.  Without the full support of every function in the business it is impossible to ever achieve and sustain excellence over the long haul.  Our businesses are integrated entities that only thrive when the processes and the culture all work and behave  in an integrated way by all.  It has to be a career-long commitment that is perpetuated with every new hire and every generation of management in the future.  See # 1 above.
  3. Lack of Integrated Systems has been a problem since the first computer MRP system was launched back in the early 1970s. Today state-of-the-art systems are pervasive.  But far too often they are not effectively integrated as numerous "bolt-on" kinds of systems are used on equipment and in various departments, e.g. Preventive/Predictive Maintenance systems, quality reports, labor reports, marketing systems, accounting system modules, HR systems, etc. etc.  What we all need are actionable reports that are sorted, formatted and which generate the information necessary, in a granular enough way, that the reader can understand what's going on and take timely action.  These major disconnects in the soft infrastructure of companies are far too common.  How many different answers do you get when asking for the same information?  Are there multiple/redundant databases being maintained?  How many hours of wasted time do you spend each week, each month, slicing and dicing reports to finally get something you can use to improve the business?   For those who are reticent about getting their systems up to date I'd recommend you approach it as a "must-do" strategic capital improvement project.  Enable your people to work just as hard on things that add value and support business improvement instead of them spending the same number of hours completing data which isn't helpful to the user and has no value.


And here's a classic example I'm sure we can all relate to.  I recently spoke at a conference of IT people.  All of them worked for manufacturing companies.  I asked this question of the group:  How many of you routinely invite  manufacturing leaders to your first system design meeting?  No hands went up.  One of the presenters the same  afternoon discussed a new initiative his company had taken to design better reports on some important shop floor metrics.  As one whose long career was in manufacturing, I was biting my tongue.  None of their new system reports was actionable--not even helpful--to the first line supervisor.  All of the cost of developing these reports was a complete waste.  We've all probably had similar experiences in marketing, sales, engineering, HR, etc.  In my experience, IT and Finance are more likely to get what they need than anyone else around the staff table while other of their internal customers stand in line to get capacity allocated.  Integrated systems mean to me that when you squeeze the balloon on one end it pops out somewhere else.  The implications/results of one decision can be modeled before actually taking the decision or, at the very least, we can understand the affect of it from the formal system data.  If you haven't already, blow up and replace all of the spreadsheets and other informal systems that cannot be integrated into the formal authorized system of the business.  If separate systems are absolutely required then clean them up and maintain them going forward as formal authorized systems for specific tasks.  Who in your company understands this and is working feverishly and collaboratively to fix it?  See # 2 above.


  1. It's the Culture, Stupid!  In any collision of change and culture what always wins? Of course, it's culture.  Absent a mandate for change and a career-long commitment beyond the term of each current leader, culture will win every time.  Absent the infinite persistence, education, training, communications and changed behaviors required by leadership, paradigms don't change.  Leaders have to be relentless and lead the organization from the old paradigm to the new.  We're not going to vote on it anymore, we're going to do it.  Follow me!  Instead, almost always, the masses go through the motions knowing full well "this too shall pass".   See # 1 above.


"If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." 

Henry Ford


"Those that say it can't be done need to get out of the way of the people who are already doing it".

 Joel Barker, Author and Futurist


"Senior leaders need to held accountable for alignment throughout the company to lead and sustain the positive, long-term change that is required.  We all get paid to maximize customer service, inspire our work force to greatness and consistently deliver shareholder value.  Since leaders tend to get what they expect, the evidence over the last three decades is that our expectations aren't nearly high enough."

Larry E. Fast, Founder and President, Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence

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