Experience-based Operational Excellence


The Customer Experience

Experience means many things.  An experience is a direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge.  In other words, the customer experiences something through observation or participation.  Experience also relates to a customer as the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation.  In other words, the customer has experienced things with the company that they base opinion on.  Also, experience is related to an individual based on their practical knowledge, skill, or practice derived from direct observation of or participation in events or in a particular activity.  Customers all have different experiences that make up their background.  Individual experience is often related in the terms of degrees, certifications, and/or years of involvement in a particular thing.

In a nutshell, customer experience (CX) is something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through by a customer with a certain company.  It is the product of an interaction between a company and a customer over the duration of their relationship.  This interaction includes their attraction, awareness, discovery, cultivation, advocacy, and purchase and use of a service.

CX is simply the result of everything that makes up the company’s product or service delivery, visible or not.

Problems with Customer Experience Today

Many companies today only focus on the ‘touchpoints’–the critical moments when customers interact with the company and its offerings to establish the customer experience.  This is often depicted in marketing as an experience map.  Often, this is a narrow focus on what is important to the customer’s satisfaction at specific moments and often creates a distorted picture of the overall experience.  This can lead a company to believe customers are happier with the company’s products and services than they actually are.  This approach also diverts attention from the bigger and more important picture–the customer’s end-to-end journey.[i]

An emphasis on Operational Excellence within an company as the driver of the CX is important to carefully consider.

Experience-based Operational Excellence

Operational Excellence (OpX), as an official business concept, has not been around very long and is often misconstrued.  The best way to look at OpX is to think of it as an end-to-end enterprise-wide management practice that aligns everything in the organization toward driving excellence.[ii]  From a perspective of the CX, OpX essentially represents an organization’s focus on all things that affect the customer’s experience (see Figure 1).

 X-Based OpX

Figure 1: Experience-based Operational Excellence

     Normally, companies view CX as a result of the product itself.  Some broaden the view into the processes that impact the product delivery and many companies see OpX as nothing more than the application of process management and Lean Six Sigma improvement processes.[iii]  In reality, true OpX represents the end-to-end enterprise-wise business management.  The ‘experience’ is at the very center of where the product, process, and employee intersect–this is what the customer sees and feels.  The entire experience is influenced by high-level company strategies, internal and external communication, and employee development.  Everything within the company is supported by an innovative layer that includes technology and information.

Thus, everything in the organization is important in the CX equation and focusing simply on touchpoints will represent a lack of true focus on the CX.  From a company’s perspective, there are several representative performance metrics that are important to the overall CX.  A company cannot simply look at metrics like sales and net promoter score, but must consider all company performance as critical to the CX.  There are many things that measure the experience, but can generally be referred to as satisfaction, sentiment, and relationship.


In summary, the traditional view of CX as a stand-alone activity represents a shortsighted view of what is important to the customer.  Although much of what makes up OpX is out of the customer’s view, it all leads to the CX and must be considered and aligned.

[i] Rawson, A., Duncan, E., & Jones, C. (2013). The Truth About Customer Experience. Harvard Business Review.

[ii] Boothe, W., & Lindborg, S. (2014). Handbook to achieve operational excellence: A realistic guide including all tools needed. Ft Myers FL: Reliabilityweb.com.

[iii] Crabtree, R. (2010). Driving operational excellence: Successful lean six sigma secrets to improve the bottom line. Livonia MI: MetaOps Publishing.


Process Improvement and Agile

Agile is quickly becoming the accepted method for project management these days. Once organizations start moving toward agile projects, quickly they want everything delivered in an agile manner. This has led many to ask how process improvement and agile work together.

One of the first misconceptions is that agile is not a process. Of course it is…there is a process flow in agile, just like any other project management approach. Agile has a set of repetitive steps to gather epics and stories and perform iterations. Without a process (series of steps), how would you effectively train agile to others and ensure everyone is doing it right and the same? Yes, agile is a process.

So process improvement can take a long time and often does not feel very agile. If your organization is moving to an agile environment, how does process improvement move there too?  Well, in process improvement, there are three ways to become more agile: proper project scoping and transfer, rapid improvement events (known by many names), and true lean/continuous improvement. The following briefly discusses all three.

Process Improvement Projects.  Running an improvement project using a formal methodology normally follows a waterfall approach, whether it be DMAIC, DMADV, PDCA, or whatever alphabet soup approach you use. Waterfall, as anyone agile will tell you, is not agile! The problem with these projects is they can take a long time to get to root cause and implemented solutions that the lead is confident will solve the business problem. Want it bad, get it bad…right? However, if you take that huge ‘boil the ocean’ problem from your sponsor/client and scope it down into a single area, you can get to an initial solution fairly quickly. Rik Taylor and Associates teaches a very specific project scoping tree that is very effective at getting to a manageable chunk of work. Then, Rik teaches students how to transfer that solution to quicker iterations in other areas, focused on the same problem. This turns the waterfall approach into a very agile-like iteration process. It is still not agile, but it is much quicker at getting to improvements and builds over time.

Rapid Improvement. This is know by many names, like Kaizen Blitz, Work Out, Action Work Out, Rapid, Rapid Improvement, etc. Although still a waterfall approach to process improvement, the actual improvement activity is compressed into a week or less of hands-on dedicated activity. The lead still needs to define and measure in preparation for the workshop event, but what most participants see is a week or less of activity. Also, the solutions, though generally lean-based, are identified and implemented very quickly. This can be a much more agile process.

Lean Shop. Lastly, working in a continuous improvement organization focused on business process management creates an environment and culture of agile improvement. See a problem, fix it, at the lowest level.  That is the nature of true continuous improvement. When you get to a true world of lean daily management backed by solid business process management, agile improvement iterations become the norm. True process improvement projects (waterfall) are only used for large end-to-end improvements.

Even though improvement is happening faster or constantly, it still does not mean it happens without a process. All problem solving must follow a process of understanding the problem, getting to a root cause, and improving. Failing to follow a repeatable approach will result in things like tampering, improper solutions, and improvements reverting back to the old way of doing business.

These are the ways that process improvement and agile are related. Remember, that a process, at its core, is nothing but a series of steps that allow for training, measurement, and consistency. Thus, agile follows a process just like everything else. Although all effective process improvement also follows a process, it can be performed in a very agile manner, getting to iterations of improvement quicker.

Fix Your Roof When the Sun is Shining

Lisa Hershman, Denovo Group, has a phrase, “We never fix the roof when the sun is shining.”

I don’t know if I really need to explain the saying, but often businesses wait until stuff goes wrong to try to fix it. Then, it becomes an emergency break fix and it is done poorly because they lack sufficient time to really solve the problem.

The thing is, in business, fixing things when the sun is shining applies to everything. This basically means fixing things that really are not broken.

Off the top of my head, here are a few items that we neglect until it is too late and then do wrong because we are hard-pressed to simply get it done.

Planning. Strategic, operational, and even tactical planning, we are tremendously poor at in business, but specifically strategic planning is often overlooked. All too often, businesses look to strategic planning when they are having significant problems and they think it will solve their problems (the proverbial silver bullet). The problem is that strategic planning is a long range effort (hence strategic) and not designed to solve tactical problems.

Process improvement. All too often businesses let shoddy processes continue as the company grows and they ignore things like defects, poor customer service, and excessive process variance until too late. Then, when everything related to the process is falling apart, suddenly the business tries to solve the problems that took years to manifest in the process. What is worse, all too often all of the business processes are in the same state of disrepair and instead of just fixing one process, the business tries to create a full blown process organization and expect it to happen overnight.

Development. Businesses often look to training to solve a problem, but do not look at development when there isn’t a problem. If you are considering going into a leadership position, this is when you start learning about leadership, not six years after becoming a leader and you suck at it. However, we get very tactical when it comes to solving problems with training as the solution.

These are just a few examples of how businesses become very reactive to things and treat everything as a fire fighter versus a fire marshal. Living the advice of Lisa Hershman is very important for all of us.

Finding Process Improvement in Service Functions

Is your business internal service related? As in things like Human Resources, Information Technology, Facilities Management, Contracting, etc?

If it is, then you probably are having difficulty identifying process improvement benefits within your own area. Sure, you probably have some waste in your processes that require trimming, but more than likely you already operate with a pretty lean staff. This is because you are a 100% cost to the business–you are not a revenue generator.

If this describes you, then this blog was meant for you. You might already know what I am about to say, but if you don’t then I hope this information helps. If you already know this information, then please share your experiences.

As a service provider to internal customers, the benefit you provide is to the customers themselves. Yes, you want to focus on eliminating as much waste in your processes as possible and get to standard work, but you should be focusing on eliminating waste and improving processes that reduce work on the part of the customer.

Let me provide an example using a medical office–they are always ripe targets for this discussion.

My wife recently went to a medical imaging center to get an MRI done on her ankle. Her doctor set it up, she had to provide information online before going, and then they required her to be there 15 minutes early to fill out paperwork. This paperwork was the exact same information her doctor could have provided and that she filled out on line.

She was called upon only a few minutes past the appointment time, so that was good. However, the put her in a room and she waited for several minutes doing nothing. Normally this type of activity allows the function to believe they are meeting their set appointment time by shifting you to an internal waiting room.

Obviously this was for an MRI, but if it is a normal doctor’s appointment, she probably would have some tests run, like blood pressure and temperature and someone would ask her what was going on and write it all down.

For her, she didn’t really see a doctor, they just took her in and did the MRI when the space was available. If this were a doctor’s office, there is a good chance that the doctor would come in and ask the same questions all over again and then leave for a good 30 to 45 minutes to see other paitients.

The operation probably has specific process reasons for everything they do. There is a good chance they are trying to meet some internal metrics that they feel are important to the business–just like you.

The problem is that their processes are wasting the customer’s time.  Think of the time my wife spent filling out paperwork twice, when the doctor could have sent over the information and all she would have to do is validate it. Think of the time she spent waiting around for the open waiting room and then to get the MRI done. This is a waste to the customer,  but often invisible to the service.

Remember, the customer’s job is not to do your job. The more time they spend in your process, is time they are not doing their job. Consider an average employee that has a burdened (all-in) hourly rate of $50 and you consume an average of 30 minutes of their time in your process every time they deal with you. Consider that you deal with 100 internal customers a day. Every day you are costing the business and average of $5,000 on processes that have no value to the business. That’s approximately $1.3M a year your process is costing your business!

This is how internal service providers find value. Remove waste and make processes easier and more effective form the customer’s point of view. Reduce the amount of time they spend in your process and make it a “one and done” experience. Obviously they are not going to cut manpower as a result, but they now have more time to spend in their core competency than in yours and that means they can earn more revenue for the business than waste on a process that just costs money.

When You Need A Swiss Army Knife in Business

Lately I have met several organizations that are at a crossroads in their own evolution. Many companies realize the importance of things like strategy, change management, process improvement, strategic communication, and employee engagement. However, these organizations are making tactical decisions on the direction of these areas versus truly looking at this from a strategic perspectives.

Instead of hiring several different individuals or creating separate teams all focused on doing the same thing, companies today should should focus on bringing all their Operational Excellence activities under one team working directly for the CEO or President of the company.  This group should be led by a senior leader that sits at the same table as the companies other leaders.

This Swiss Army Knife professional–SVP/VP, Operational Excellence–should manage things like:
– Strategy development, execution, and change
– Performance optimization through process, product, and functional continuous improvement
– Strategic communication inside and outside the organization
– Strategic human capital management to include education, training, and development and employee satisfaction, commitment, and engagement
– Information and innovation engagement

This team does not need to be big…depending on an organization’s size, it could be as small as three or four people.  However, it should leverage other support areas throughout the organization, like Human Resources, Finance, IT, etc. These organizations would not report to the position, but work with the position.

Today, some organizations have some or all of these activities occuring, but they are scattered across the organization and have very little singular direction. By bringing the functions together into a small effective team, an organization is equipped to deal with the challenges of today and the future.

Of course, the leaders of these types of organizations have to have a solid understanding of all these functions at strategic, operatiomal, and tactical levels and not focused on creating some massive sandbox of people with various skills. They need to be highly skilled with a focus on lean and mean.

First step in process improvement

The first step, I often see missed, in any process improvement activity is alignment of the process to the strategy.

In any process improvement, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself, “Why is this process important in the first place and how does it support the mission?”

This is often not done. People take for granted that everything you do is in support of the mission and aligned to your strategy. However, having this discussion with yourself up front might eliminate not only the need for the process improvement, but you might remove the process all together.

When I was working in Intel, they had done away with a certain type of operation…people listening into communications over a specific channel. However, during a visit, by a senior commander, to a unit, he discovered a team that was still performing that operation several years later.

People ask, “How is that possible?” Well, in large organizations, operations become very diversified and if you aren’t constantly validating your role, you might find it to become obsolete.

However, the tendency is to say, “We’ve always done it, so it’s obviously required.”

That is a severe example above, but I have seen processes where something was produced that people had always produced and other people in the process were not even aware that there was someone producing something. Every day people would come to work and produce a product in relation to a large process that spanned an organization and they would file their results as they always had. All the while, the people in charge of the process were not even aware of what was going on. Essentially, that entire process step was a waste of effort and the final product they were creating wasn’t even being looked at.

How do these things happen?

We validate process needs at the beginning of the stand-up of a process, but then the years go by and we just keep working the way we’ve always done it. Meanwhile, people change out, the process changes, and maybe the process gets automated. Suddenly the need for one of the steps goes away.

However, no one told the people performing that step in the process, because no one knows that that part of the process even exists. Unfortunately, that part of the process is still accessing the system, on the email distribution for workflow, etc. and they’re happily working away at a process that someone already made obsolete.

So, when you are in the initial phase of your process improvement whether it be Plan, Define, or something else, ensure the relevancy of the process you are looking to improve. Research that stakeholder list using the SIPOC and go talk to the people in the process to ensure your work is still aligned and valid.

To solve this problem, before it gets this far, any process that spans multiple areas, as most processes do, it is best that that process meet regularly to discuss changes and impacts, validate expectations, and ensure relevancy in the process. This is the reason that people are ‘missing the memo’ that the process has changed, because the process is so siloed that no one knows what the other hand is doing.

However, even if you are meeting with the parts of the process regularly, ensure the relevancy and alignment of your process before you go through the effort of improving it.

What’s best for who…Lean, Six Sigma, Design for Six Sigma

Lately this item has come up for discussion. What is the best approach to process improvement, should we teach all, how much of each should you employ?

From a practitioner’s point of view, this matters, but in reality, out on the floor, managers and workers need Common Process Sense. Recently, one of the managers I work with went through Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt training which is much more Six Sigma than Lean. She had already taken Green Belt because that was all that was available, but that course overwhelmed her.

What she came back talking about we’re tools. That’s great, but I realized that she’s not going to be a practitioner, she needed real world ideas that she could apply immediately when she returned to her office.

I believe that true Lean has more common sense approaches, but they can be just as confusing, especially when they use odd names and such, like Huddleboards, Gemba Walks, Ohno Circle, 5S, A3, Hoshin Planning, etc. Let’s face it, true Lean requires a Rosetta Stone course to fully understand.

Long ago, the Air Force created the Air Force Quality Program. They had some very basic courses that focused on Awareness of the program, how to manage Teams and use Basic Tools. The Air Force program was around from about 1990 to 2000–about 10 years. The basic common sense training that I started with is what really got me involved. I understood it and was able to apply it every day.

These are the basic skills that people working on the front lines need to know…they need to be taught and then mentored through application.

Process Mapping. Everyone needs to know how to write down their step-by-step process so that anyone can pick it up and follow it. I’ve said it before that leaders tend to say “Map to X level,” but that’s based on a belief that process improvement practitioners are doing the mapping…no. Everyone that works in a repetitive process should have a process map that outlines every single step of the process written in narrative form and if it uses a computer, the narrative should include screen shots and file locations. If there are physical steps that need to occur, then photos of those physical activities should be included. In Lean you would call that Visual Work. No one can tell me that this is a waste of time for the person doing the work. Additionally’ no one but the people doing the work and the managers that manage the work need these process maps. You don’t need any special software to do this…you can write it down with paper and pencil or use a simple word editor.

Basic Workload Data. Now that I know exactly what I do, I can actually identify key workload data that I would like to capture. There are three things that I want to know…they never vary from process to process.

Time: What is the average time it takes to perform this process from start to finish. Every cell phone today has a stop watch, use it. Here is the very simple way that I recommend you time your process. Assign an individual that will time an individual that will perform the process. Don’t change these people until you’re done. Every day the process is performed, take three timings of the process every hour that the process is performed. Unless only one person does the process, collect timings from at least two people and a maximum of four if a lot of people perform the same process. Make sure the person timing is the same every time. This seems like a lot of work, but it really isn’t and if you don’t know the true average time it takes to do the process, you really have no idea what is happening. Add up all the timings and divide by the number of timings you have…simple average. Find someone that knows how to analyze data, preferably with Minitab, and have them analyze the data–they will provide you a great deal more information that you can use.

Volume: You need a way to collect the number of times that the process is completed. Also, you need to know by individual the number of times they performed the process if more then one person performs the process. Truly you want to know how many times the process is performed and the actual volume of the finished product that left the work center. The reason is to know how much rework occurred–in other words, they performed the process more times because of errors than the number of finished products that went out. But, for basics, you need to know how many times the process was performed or the total number of finished products from the process that went out. If you don’t know how much work you do every day, well, I really don’t know what to tell you. By combining the amount of work every day and the average time it takes to perform the process, you now know the productivity of your process. If you perform the process 1000 times in the day and it takes 1 minute to perform the process, then it takes 1000 minutes to perform that process. That’s 16.66 hours of work, which equates to just over 2 full time positions working 8 hours a day. If on Monday’s the volume doubles, then you know you need staffing that equates to about five people.

Defects: When you write down every single step in the process, you will probably run into this situation where there is an “if then” statement. If the product received is incomplete, then send it back; if the the paper printed is blank, reprint; if the expected block isn’t filled out, call so and so; etc. Normally, we just treat those things…those if thens…as part of the process. They are not. Those are “exceptions,” which are better known as defects. As you write down the steps, document these exceptions to your “clean” process and then create a way to collect the number of times that these exceptions occur. By simply looking at the totals for the various process defects over a period of time–maybe a month–you identify which ones are the most frequent. Common sense can tell you how much time each of these defects actually takes or how much impact these defects cause in your process. This gives you enough data to determine what you want to work on to improve your process. Otherwise, you might work on improving the wrong thing just because it’s easy or more glaring/visible.

Just think if everyone at the lowest level were doing this? Problems would be identified and solved at the lowest levels. Work would constantly be improved and everything would operate smoother in the work center.

Those experts in Lean and Six Sigma are there to help you analyze all this data you’ve collected around your process. They can help you build key charts to examine and analyze and they can recommend some just in time methods. If you run into a major process issue that spans multiple parts of the organization, they can develop a full blown process improvement effort and can facilitate everyone to solve the problem.

Bottom line, process improvement is simply business common sense with a fair amount of elbow grease thrown in. It’s the way you should act every day and you’ll take these basics to every job from here forward.

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