What is “Operational Excellence”?

Who would not want something called “Operational Excellence”? “Excellence” is superlative goodness, and “Operational” suggests a scope that includes not only production, logistics, and maintenance in Manufacturing, but also administrative transaction processing like issuing car rental contracts or marriage licenses. The boundaries are fuzzy, but Marketing and R&D are not usually considered part of Operations.

Hearing “Operational Excellence” for the first time, everybody takes it to mean whatever they think is the best way to run operations, which makes it unlikely that any two people will have the same perception. If marketers of consulting services can prevail upon a profession to accept such a vague and generic term as a brand, they can sell pretty much anything under this label. By contrast, the Toyota Production System (TPS) specifically refers to the principles, approaches, methods, and tools that Toyota uses to make cars. When you first hear it, you may not know what those are, but you know that you don’t know. Another difference between “Operational Excellence” — also known as “OpEx’ or “OE” — and TPS, is that the first is a goal, while the second one is a means to achieve the unmentioned but obvious goal of thriving in the car industry.

Chevron OE
OE at Chevron

It is an increasingly popular term, perhaps because of its very lack of precision. Google it, and you find, for example, that, Chevron “has spent more than 20 years expanding systems that support a culture of safety and environmental stewardship that strives to achieve world-class performance and prevent all incidents. We call this Operational Excellence (OE),…”  So, at Chevron, OE is about avoiding accidents that directly hurt people and oil spills that ruin the environment.

It is certainly not what it means to the  Institute for Operational Excellence. Its website has a glossary that contains exclusively terms from TPS or Lean, like Andon, Cell, Chaku-Chaku, 5S, Kanban,…, which strongly suggests that Operational Excellence is just the latest avatar of TPS when applied outside of Toyota. For 25 years, “Lean” has reigned supreme in this role but may finally be getting stale after so many botched implementations.

Shingo Prize for OpExThe Utah State University website, on its Jon M. Huntsman School of Business page, has a directory entry for The Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence. The Shingo Prize site itself, however, while using “excellence” in almost every sentence, does not refer to operational excellence. The theme of this year’s Shingo Prize conference, in Sandusky, OH in May, was “Enterprise Excellence,” which sounds like a further generalization. But, digging deeper, you find that the Shingo Model Handbook contains “operational excellence” 31 times, “Lean” 7 times,  “Toyota”  twice, and “TPS” never.


Shigeo Shingo
Shigeo Shingo
Stuck gears on the Shingo Prize page

The Shingo Prize page uses as a banner a picture of three gears with the teeth enmeshed in such a way that they can’t move, a picture that would have seemed odd to an engineer like  Shigeo Shingo. His legacy is primarily contributions to production engineering like SMED, Poka-Yoke, and line/work station design. On these subjects, you cannot see daylight between Shingo’s work and the Toyota Production System (TPS). Therefore, when you see a document called “Shingo Model Handbook” that refers repeatedly to Operational Excellence and never to TPS, you can’t help but conclude that Operational Excellence is just another name for TPS.

UC Berkeley OE Program Office Team
UC Berkeley OE Program Office Team

UC Berkeley has an Operational Excellence (OE) Program Office. Based on the family picture in its Spring 2014 Progress Report, it has 12 members. UC Berkeley has a total workforce of 29,000, of which 2,000 are full and part-time faculty members, and about 36,000 students. It works out to 1 member of the OE Program Office for every 2,417 members of the work force and 3,000 students. They present themselves as  internal consultants, with access to funding and expertise in “project management, change management, strategic planning, campus engagement, financial analysis and planning, business and data analysis, and communications.” The director of the office has been on the administrative staff for 13 years and reports to the university’s chief administrative officer. This is yet another take on it.

Do the proponents of Operational Excellence do a better job of capturing the essence of TPS than their predecessors in Lean, World-Class Manufacturing,  Synchronous Manufacturing, or Agile Manufacturing? The above-mentioned institute has a page defining Operational Excellence as “the point at which ‘Each and every employee can see the flow of value to the customer, and fix that flow before it breaks down.’” 

At first, it sounds like another version of True North, as explained by Art Smalley. Taking a closer look, as a general statement, it does not make much sense. It implies that every employee of every organization is involved in something that can, at least metaphorically, by described as a “flow of value” to customers. It is no stretch to see how this applies to a hot dog street vendor, but how does it work for, say, a firefighter? A firefighter serves the public by putting out fires, but the value of a firefighter resides in the ability to put out fires when they occur, not in the number of fires put out. A firefighter “seeing a flow of value to customers” is a head scratcher. As for “fixing the flow before it breaks down,” it conjures up the image of a plumber repairing a pipe that doesn’t leak.

Even Wikipedia editors are uncomfortable with their article on Operational Excellence. They denounce it as “promoting the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information.” The definition is indeed short and confused:

Operational Excellence is an element of organizational leadership that stresses the application of a variety of principles, systems, and tools toward the sustainable improvement of key performance metrics.

Much of this management philosophy is based on earlier continuous improvement methodologies, such as Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, and Scientific Management. The focus of Operational Excellence goes beyond the traditional event-based model of improvement toward a long-term change in organizational culture.

It says what Operational Excellence is an element of, what it is based on, and what it goes beyond, but not what it is. And much of what these few words say raises eyebrows:

  1. The emphasis on metrics is a throwback to Management-By-Objectives, an approach that has historically not led to excellence at anything but gaming metrics.
  2. Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, and Scientific Management are emphatically not continuous improvement methodologies. Continuous improvement is a component of Lean but by no means all of it. Six Sigma is not continuous improvement at all, and Taylor’s “scientific” management was about preventing operators from colluding to curtail output, not improving processes.
  3. Continuous improvement is not event-based.  Contrary to what the name suggests, “Kaizen events” don’t do continuous improvement. This format was actually developed in the AME in the 1990s based on the realization that just continuous improvement could not accomplish changes of the scope that was needed.
  4. TPS/Lean, when correctly implemented, has always been about a long-term change in organizational culture.