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Operational Excellence - The Need for Empathy

Today's business climate is very competitive and there are demands coming from everywhere and everyone. There is constant and unrelenting pressure to improve: performance, sustainability, and innovation. These improvements are at the heart of Operational Excellence and are vital for companies to compete and succeed. However, the pursuit of operational excellence can end up becoming a means to itself.

What a company focuses on often decides what kinds of outcomes happen. If you want to improve quality then adopting ISO 9000 may help you get there. However, if you adopt ISO 9000, by itself, it will not likely improve your quality. The same is true for operational excellence. The drive for operational excellence can end up becoming a series of projects to be completed while losing sight of the overall outcomes for the company.

A casualty of this approach are the workers who are responsible to make improvements happen. And out of this group, the ones that feel most responsible are the ones that are most affected.

Workers who feel responsible are often the most loyal to the organization and are the key supporters of improvement initiatives. They are the ones who understand how changes may impact those they work with. They understand not only how a change will impact what a person does, but as importantly, how it affects how they think and feel about the work they are doing. They are the ones who bring empathy into the discussion. Unfortunately, too often, people who show these kinds of insights are dismissed as projects soldier on towards completing the next improvement initiative.

To make improvements stick it is important to not lose sight of the fact that people are responsible to make them happen. LEAN talks about this in terms of having respect for people. Design thinking calls this as the need to "Empathize". In fact, it suggests that empathy is the starting point for innovation which is exactly what companies need to improve operational excellence.

Tim Cook, CEO at Apple, made the following statement at the 2017 commencement address at MIT:

"When you keep people at the center of what you do, it can impact."

The pursuit of operational excellence is crucial to organizations. To achieve better outcomes for both productivity and safety, companies must innovate. This will require change and not only once but on-going. Let's remember that at the center of these changes are people and they are the ones that make each improvement a reality.

Plan-Do-Check-Act Questions:

  1. In what ways does your operational excellence program respect people?

  2. What would it look like if people were the center of improvement initiatives?

  3. How can empathy be incorporated more in how you approach continuous improvement?

  4. What step can you take to improve your approach to operational excellence?



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