There are so many definitions of operational excellence out there. They share common traits such as bringing a sustainable culture that brings process and results all together to align operations with company goals and objectives to give the company a competitive advantage. In my training that is broken down into coherence (culture), challenge (measures & processes), and continuity (sustainability). What many don't have though is the missing link that pulls it all together - behavior.
Operational Excellence as a Habit
One of my favorite quotes concerning excellence is from Aristotle. “We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” I find this to be a very true statement. Habits are powerful sets or sequences of behavior that either inhibit or enhance performance. Our habits inform so much of our daily living that we often do them without even the smallest thought. We see that played out when we seek to go outside of our daily routine. If, for instance, I need to do an errand that requires me to drive somewhere other than my regular route to work I find from time to time that I have taken my work route instead of the new route simply out of habit.
If Aristotle is right, and I believe he is, then as leaders we need to examine what our staff does in terms of habits that impact performance. What that means is we need to break down what they do into a series of behaviors that, together, produce the action or product we are looking for. These can include what we used to refer to as "intangibles" (they are not) such as things like teamwork or work ethic or they can include very specific actions that relate to production such as work on a production line or in a plant.
These habits can enhance performance but, in many cases, these habits can also inhibit performance. In his excellent analysis of the London King’s Cross Underground subway fire Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit” takes apart the behaviors and habits that had formed on the teams responsible for ensuring safety in the subway system. What he discovered was that over the course of time, policies and habits came into play that prevented the teams from being able to respond rapidly to an emergency and in this case to a fire. Those habits prevented the team from appreciating the scope of the emergency and many died as a result.
Two things came out of the findings; first the need to transform the culture of the staff that worked on the subway and two the need to come up with a better process that would allow them to be much more agile in responding to a crisis. Operational Excellence is what is used to help operations leaders transform their team culture and TARP is one tool that can be used to ensure agile and quick responses to issues when they arise.
Cues, Reinforcement & TARP
Habits and the behaviors that make them up revolve around a "cue" and a "result" or "reinforcement." The cue prompts the habit and the result of reinforcement ensures that the habit will happen again. Tony Dungy one of the most successful NFL coaches created Super Bowl-winning teams through the development of key habits and the behaviors that went with them. He identified the "cues" that he wanted his linemen to key on, the behaviors that followed the "cue" and how that would lead to the result he wanted. He wanted these habits ingrained much like the way we don't think about the route we take going to work, so his players wouldn't "think" about what to do when a "cue" happened they would just "do" the behavior they needed to. In a game where milliseconds matter that approach gave his team a decided edge and produced spectacular results.
This approach is commonly used for folks involved in high-risk activities such as the military, first responders, pilots, and safety personnel. If you saw the recent movie "Sully" you would have witnessed how actions in the cockpit are governed by habits and the behaviors they drive that is so ingrained that even in a dire emergency (in fact "because" of the emergency - a cue) habits kick into gear and they quickly go through a long list of things to do. Many involved in the world of Safety and Accident Prevention are now using this technique through what they call the TARP method. TARP is an acronym for Trigger Action Response Plan and essentially what it encompasses is identifying a series of ‘triggers’ and actions that should happen automatically as part of a preconceived response plan to the event. We do it all the time with fire drills where the fire is the trigger and the actions are pulling the alarm, evacuate the team, and call 911. We plan and practice this so that as a behavior it becomes a habit.
This is where Operational Excellence and TARP complement each other. Creating a continuous improvement culture on your team gives them the freedom to explore new and better processes and equips them to work together to create TARPs that work. The more eyes on the issue the better. To go to our Seniors Facilities title an OE culture and TARP process would have equipped seniors care teams to consider things like highlighting staff who worked across various facilities as a potential gap in safety, looking at processes that could be COVID transmittal conduits or by evaluating how resident safety could be impacted by bringing seniors from the community into the facility as a precaution. More than anything a robust TARP process would have given each team a clear mandate and plan for dealing with an infectious outbreak and what to do about it going forward.
You cannot predict all the things that your team may encounter but you can create a culture that gives everyone permission to speak into the process and provide them with the training and habits to successfully deal with it. Performance Leadership - Think About It!