Management Work Processes

Operational Excellence: A Holistic Pursuit

EP Editorial Staff | December 1, 2014


Something extraordinary develops when everyone in an operation pulls together. World-class organizations understand how to reach this level of excellence. Yours can too.

The impact of Operational Excellence (OpEx) in every aspect of an enterprise is impressive. Top companies like Boeing, Hyundai/KIA, Coca Cola, Ford, Google, General Electric, Bimbo, and many others work daily to this effect. They have learned how to turn obstacles into firm steps toward achieving the extraordinary efficiencies a true OpEx culture affords.

The OpEx culture develops when everyone in an enterprise fully grasps how their individual roles align with the needs of the organization. The goal is to be the best there is. In this environment, there’s no need for someone to be in charge of encouraging or reminding others of their behavioral commitment. People understand the culture and stay focused on it. Those who have decided to operate with excellence must compare themselves to an open-heart surgeon—there is no room for poor performance. As more organizations implement the level of Operational Excellence referenced in the new ISO 55000 standard, OpEx cultures will likely become more common. You can also take steps toward OpEx right now.

OpEx and plant maintenance

Maintenance teams are often used to working in isolation from other activities in an organization. Many are frequently unaware of important changes in factors outside of daily job requirements that can impact their efforts. These include everything from the marketplace for the company’s products to internal issues such as the company’s administrative plans or financial health. These “silos” of information have often been shown to impede the effectiveness of maintenance.

To align with OpEx principles, a maintenance sector might first determine the level of importance it occupies within the larger organization. Ideally, the concept that maintenance exists to “repair whatever gets damaged” should be long gone. World-class companies have discovered how a good maintenance organization can contribute to the optimal collective results of their operation. Yet if maintenance customers are not always completely informed or satisfied, for example, or if problems and failures recur or if a job is simply not adequately finished, OpEx has not been reached.

A recurring failure, though, presents a good starting point for a new, better way of doing things. Such situations may arise because personnel haven’t received the training they need to do their jobs correctly. While they may have the technical skills, some might not be equipped to perform as professional individuals or teams. In many cases, such individuals may lack a clear concept or awareness of the importance that their jobs represent in the big picture. Each of these conditions represents an opportunity for improvement.

Operators are often in a similar situation. Few enterprises, for example, are aware of how important good training is to operators. Although new production hires may receive a few safety instructions, learning and understanding the essential principles of operation of the equipment they are expected to run is often a matter of trial and error.

Within the OpEx culture

The OpEx model creates a new vision. Everyone in the enterprise must relate their work function to the process of satisfying customers’ requirements. People must reach such a level of ownership and accountability in their workstation in either administrative, operative or corporative tasks that they all can clearly see how the value flows and grows at each step, assuring that this process keeps ongoing in the value chain.

At the same time, they all must be prepared, empowered and motivated to respond proactively to take actions or help others solve or prevent any possible interruption or delay in that flow. Teams must be highly performing at all times without the need for a manager or leader to intervene. This approach to
Operational Excellence requires a high level of commitment from everyone and a strong culture of cooperation and ownership. Without this level empowerment and ownership, OpEx cannot exist.

Within this type of culture, “maintenance professional” and “professional operator” are defined as follows:

Maintenance Professional—A professional with technical knowledge and soft skills who can reliably and effectively perform or support the necessary tasks to preserve, create or modify buildings, plants, equipment and tools to optimize their cost-effective utilization. He/she must be able to learn, communicate and share knowledge with others in a friendly manner to assure that everyone understands the processes and the right utilization of the plant’s assets to comply with the organization’s mission.

Professional Operator—A professional with a deep knowledge of the process, resources and equipment, and who is educated and informed of correct production flow. He or she has constant access to real-time information that will allow him/her to understand and detect any abnormality that may lead to a delay or failure to deliver the specified quality and expected amount of product to the final customer. This person will have the motivation and empowerment to take direct actions or have someone intervene in the correction, prevention or avoidance of problems.

Maintenance, operations and plant engineering functions are among the most critical contributors to the successful pursuit of a holistic OpEx culture. This is because they are in a position to help upgrade processes and ensure they are completely visual or transparent to everyone in real-time. In this way, all can keep these processes under constant surveillance and discover any obstacle or deviation from the optimal delivery to the final customer. Each individual, regardless of position or hierarchy, should have access to the details of the process, and know exactly what to do or whom to contact to prevent the delay of value flow.

Key OpEx benefits

The direct benefits of Operational Excellence to the success of the maintenance organization are endless. Some of the most immediate and measurable are:

Failure Prevention—When all plant personnel are taught to detect malfunctions, and someone realizes that associates, equipment or tools are not delivering the right quality or throughput, he/she will directly—or through communication with others—help to resolve or avoid the unwanted situation(s). This brings the plant to an optimal condition of preventive maintenance, since the capacity of timely inspection grows exponentially.

Total Involvement and Cooperation—These traits are developed as common practice within the OpEx enterprise. Through good motivation and empowerment, this involvement and cooperation occur naturally, creating a powerful teamwork environment. This happens most easily when individuals realize there is personal benefit for doing so. A great time to start this culture is during orientation talks with new hires. This can help an individual understand the uniqueness of his/her role and foster continuous communication with others in the organization.

Less Damage to Equipment—When operators learn more about their equipment, they’re likely to follow appropriate best practices in the performance of their jobs. This reduces damage to assets and accidents. Consequently, losses and interruptions are reduced or prevented.

Reduced Cost of Maintenance—When a failure or malfunction is detected in its early stages, the time and cost needed to correct, adjust or repair are drastically reduced. This avoids damage to associated equipment components and, at the same time, increases the level of safety in the operation. This seems to be particularly true in petrochemical and shipbuilding where replacements are specialized and costly.

More Focused Maintenance Efforts—Traditional maintenance efforts aren’t always based on actual observations, requirements or complaints. As a result, efficiency can suffer. With higher levels of knowledge and empowerment under OpEx parameters, users help reduce troubleshooting and repair process times and, thus, become more productive. To bring work-order systems to the OpEx level, it is critical to keep a clear—visible-to-all—tracking process and avoid lengthy “pending” statuses. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are used to track progress.

A cultural breakthrough

Those who have traveled the path to Operational Excellence sometimes find it easier to achieve than they might have initially imagined. Still, there’s no doubt that for an OpEx culture to develop, high levels of motivation and leadership are mandatory. This is essential for survival under today’s current conditions of global competition.

Countless problems and losses can be attributed to personnel not knowing what, when or how to do something. These situations are typically associated with lack of: communication, flow of information, training, accountability, motivation or leadership. It is common to find such voids in organizations based on authoritarian hierarchies, wherein some individuals believe that knowledge they don’t share is a valuable asset to which only they are entitled.

OpEx is a means to ensure that information silos (or information hoarding) and the poor work habits they spawn disappear from an organization for good. It works because of the timely performance of every individual in the group. Resources and efforts put into reaching this level of excellence will have enormous, positive repercussions across the enterprise. MT

This article is based on information supplied by Enrique Mora, a senior consultant for companies worldwide who specializes in teamwork and labor synergy. Reach him at


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