With downsizing of operational staff and fluctuating demand, operations managers have had to improve profitability by pursuing operational excellence (OpEx) strategies. However, a lack of awareness of the pitfalls that can hinder the process have resulted in lackluster results. If operations management keep a few factors in mind, they likely will see better results in their upcoming efforts than historical results would predict.

Leaders Must Lead

It has become the common business mantra to “empower employees” and allow teams to lead our operations. This has led to laissez faire management practices within operations and teams. Rather than empowered, teams are left feeling as if they have been given ultimate responsibility without any real authority. Directors of operations and plant managers in turn “bayonet the wounded after the battle” by second-guessing team decisions instead of maintaining involvement throughout the improvement process.

Managers should maintain involvement and foster a team environment while signaling the importance of the effort through their time commitment and energy. If the operational excellence process isn’t important enough for plant management to sponsor, why would any other employee take the effort to heart?

Develop the Team or the Team won’t Develop Your Operation

The skill set demanded of a team hoping to improve operations through operational excellence goes beyond technical knowledge of the operation’s processes. The team’s skills will need to be enhanced in various areas, such as teamwork, technical problem-solving (Ishikawa, fault tree analysis) and effective communications. Without these skills, strong executive leadership and clear charter, the team simply won’t be able to solve the operational problems before them. With proper training, sponsorship and charter, the team is set up for success.

Beware of the Rogue Rock Star

Every operation or plant has one: the go-to performer who can meet the latest of deadlines or get an order ready to ship in the 11th hour. The price for this capability is often a rogue “rules don’t apply” individual who rarely bothers with such details as documentation and process rigor. These tasks are seen as tedious and often beneath such a star performer.

Executives often excuse the performer’s refusal to comply with defined processes because of their ability to deliver at crunch time -- it seems a small sacrifice to make. While it indeed is a small sacrifice, it has big cumulative consequences. Before long, this ability to defy written process is seen as a status symbol. Executives have signaled that the rules simply don’t apply to “the best.”

In fact, discipline is key for proper operational excellence. The best employee is the one who can execute according to prescribed process in the most efficient manner, not the employee who can execute the fastest with no process restrictions.

By rewarding those who achieve efficiency the right way, there becomes alignment between goals, rewards and outcomes. This is critical to an operational excellence strategy.

The Best Available Athlete may not be Good Enough

Many times, operations executives survey their team’s capabilities, select those with the highest intellectual aptitude, send them to a seminar and expect the team to have the capability to deliver improved operational outcomes. The fact is, to achieve world-class operational excellence the appropriate team leader needs technical expertise and experience in operational excellence implementation, the ability to delegate, hold accountable and facilitate, as well as avoid the political tangles of the organization.

Candidates with these strengths are rare in an organization, and many times, through political trade offs, small operational enhancements are achieved without disrupting the status quo “too much.” Because of this, the operational executive should consider the involvement of a third-party expert to help facilitate and develop his or her team if their best available athlete just isn’t adequate.

When implementing operational excellence strategies, keep these four pitfalls in mind. The success (or failure) of your OpEx implementation depends on it!

Jason Piatt is president of Praestar Technology Corp., a provider of consulting and training services to manufacturers in the Mid-Atlantic region specializing in lean, Six Sigma & strategy formation.