Complete Guide to Operational Excellence

Operational Excellence: The Complete Guide to Success

01 February 2021


Operational excellence might not sound like the most exciting phrase in the business world. 

But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, operational excellence has become more critical than it has ever been - not only for profitability and reducing costs, but for creating a resilient, adaptable organization. 

This guide will help you achieve operational excellence and identify the biggest challenges your business is facing along the way.

Table of Contents: 

1. What is Operational Excellence? 

2. Why is Operational Excellence Important? 

3. 5 Challenges Preventing Achievement of Operational Excellence 

4. How to Achieve Operational Excellence

5. Examples of Operational Excellence Methodologies

6. Where to Start

7. Key Takeaways 

What is Operational Excellence?

Is it operating so excellently that your entire business runs like a well-oiled machine 100% of the time?

After doing a quick Google, you'll find that the definition of operational excellence is far more complex than that, and really depends on where you look.

This study on operational excellence defines it as:

"A strategy organizations can use to deliver quality, price, ease of purchase in such a manner that no other organization in the industry can match."

This definition from defines operational excellence as:

"A philosophy of the workplace where problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership results in the ongoing improvement in an organization. The process involves focusing on the customers' needs, keeping the employees positive and empowered, and continually improving the current activities in the workplace."

So, operational excellence helps organizations surpass their competitors, focus on customers and empower employees.

That's a lot of possible outcomes packed into two words.

Here's a simpler definition.

Operational excellence is a constant state of maximizing an organization's outputs, while requiring minimal inputs to get there.

An operationally excellent organization does more with less - as its default state.

Outputs can be quality, profit, customer experience, number of products and much more, depending on the business and industry.

Inputs are typically time, money and number of employees.

Operational excellence is: 

  • An outcome and a goal that every employee must be involved in
  • A culture of continuous improvement
  • An organization's default state once it's achieved

So if operational excellence is the state of running like a well-oiled machine, what's the oil? And what's the machine?

This is all getting very meta.

The machine is the processes, tools, systems and employees that make up the way an organization operates.

The oil is operational efficiency.

Operational efficiency is how an organization reaches a state of operational excellence.


Is operational excellence the same thing as continuous improvement? 

Not quite. 

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to make processes, systems and tools better. 

Operational excellence is a state you achieve when efficiency is so deeply intertwined with your organization's culture that it becomes the new normal.

How can you master operational efficiency in order to achieve operational excellence?

That's what we'll dive into in this guide.

Why is Operational Excellence Critical for Success?

If doing more with less isn't enough of a reason to start pursuing operational excellence, here are some more specific and measurable outcomes.

Operational Excellence reduces costs

Less revenue, time and employee resources are needed to achieve better results.

Since operational excellence is a data-driven approach where everything is constantly measured and assessed, investing time, money and employees in situations that don't result in a measurable outcome is a thing of the past.


Operational Excellence increases quality and improves processes 

Operational excellence is all about streamlining and continuously improving processes, systems and tools.

Increased quality and better processes are a natural byproduct of having more transparency and additional sets of eyes on what was previously hidden from view.


Operational excellence improves decision making

Warehouses, factories, stores, and physical sites are a goldmine of data most business leaders aren't fully aware of.

When operational excellence is achieved, this data becomes more accessible. Better data drives better decisions that yield more value in the long run.


Operational excellence makes customers happier

Operational excellence frees up employees so they have more bandwidth to focus on activities that drive value - which ultimately drives customer satisfaction.

For retail and hospitality employees, operational excellence frees up time to spend helping customers.

RELATED: A Guide to Improving Retail Store Operations

For employees in industries like construction and manufacturing, operational excellence frees up time and energy to focus on core competencies like quality and productivity.


"Employee empowerment is a prerequisite for operational excellence." 


Operational excellence improves the employee experience

Employee empowerment is a prerequisite for operational excellence, as we'll discuss later on.

Empowered employees are more than likely having a better experience and increased levels of job satisfaction.

Operational excellence means doing more with less. And giving employees the resources to do more with less is the definition of empowerment.

Related: What do your frontline employees need from you to be fully empowered in 2021? Download our State of the Frontline Employee Workplace Survey to find out! 

State of the Frontline Employee Workplace Survey Download

In turn, this boosts retention and further reduces costs by avoiding expensive loss of expertise and rehiring/training expenses when employees turn over.


Empowering employees through operational excellence


Operational excellence increases profits

Since operational excellence cuts costs, increases quality and everything else mentioned above, it ultimately increases profits.

Multiple studies about operational excellence, like this one from the Economist Intelligence Unit, have found that the initiatives organizations undertake on the road to operational excellence - like boosting efficiency, diving into data and making internal communications more transparent - result in more profit.


Operational excellence future-proofs your organization

There isn't a single industry that hasn't been impacted in some way by COVID-19.

Let's face it, the crisis has forced many organizations to do more with less in both reactionary and proactive ways.

And while there are countless examples of companies who have quickly risen to the challenge and entirely reinvented the way they operate, there are just as many examples of companies who didn't.

We don't know what the future holds, and achieving operational excellence is the best way to minimize disruptions.

Achieving operational excellence helps your organization stay competitive and make customers happy while keeping costs low.

According to McKinsey,

"Successful companies will redesign their operations and their supply chains to protect their business against a wider and more acute range of potential shocks and disruptive events."


5 Challenges Organizations Run Into When Trying to Achieve Operational Excellence

If there's one key takeaway here about challenges preventing operational excellence, it's this - no specific team, unit or individual is to blame.

It takes a very conscious effort by everyone at all levels of the organization - from senior management to frontline employees - to start the operational excellence marathon and make it to the finish line.

It's easier to continue with the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality than it is to challenge the status quo - especially if the status quo has existed for years without issue.

Here are 5 of the biggest challenges preventing the achievement of operational excellence.


1) Lack of visibility

Frontline workers in stores, warehouses, factories, restaurants and sites are responsible for doing the work that keeps the wheels of a business turning.

And unfortunately, the places where frontline employees spend their days are typically not places the organization has much visibility into.

When an organization has no visibility into processes and data from the field and the frontline, it's virtually impossible to spot the inefficiencies that make operational excellence difficult.


2) Employee turnover

Industries employing frontline employees like retail and hospitality have some of the highest turnover rates out there.

And in industries like manufacturing and construction, the cost of turnover is the loss of highly technical and skilled expertise.

Running a well-oiled machine when the parts in the machine keep changing is no easy feat.


3) A lack of support for frontline employees

This stems from a top-down, old-school style of management where head office or corporate decides what happens, and stores, sites and field teams get it done.

Remember, head office should exist to support employees - not the other way around.


4) Manual, time-consuming and processes

Paper checklists, manual reporting, sending 50 page work instructions by email - these operational processes haven’t evolved in decades.

Just like that weekly 9AM Monday meeting where no one has anything to say, but no one is brave enough to stop showing up, many operational processes exist simply because they’ve always been done that way.

But there's an easier way to get through these operational processes without sacrificing any accuracy - to the contrary, in fact.

More on that later.

Manual processes - Complete Guide to Operational Excellence


5) Resistance to change

A 2019 study on global operational excellence trends found that 21% of managers, executives and directors ranked resistance to change as the main obstacle preventing the achievement of operational excellence at their companies.

Often we think of frontline employees as being the biggest resistors to change. McKinsey has found that 70% of change management programs fail because of employee resistance, in fact.

But it goes both ways. Unless employees are shown the benefits and clear reasons why they should be part of a change, the status quo will remain the much safer and easier option.

Management can be just as much of a resistor to change as frontline employees can - and for any change to be successful, you have to lead by example.


6 Strategies to Achieve Operational Excellence

1) Change your mindset

Operational excellence requires the participation of the entire organization, from the CEO down to the shop floor.

The best way to jumpstart operational excellence is to think about how to get rid of what prevents employees from going above and beyond every day.

This could be fairly easy to fix, like digitizing an outdated tool.

Or it could be more complex, like rethinking your entire culture as an organization.

To achieve operational excellence, management has to both lead by example and listen.

Chances are, employees in the middle of all the action and on the frontline with customers have more insight into what's preventing operational excellence than leadership does.


2) Decide on governance

Who will be responsible for identifying the biggest inefficiencies?

Who will come up with new procedures?

Who will need to be on the team that investigates possible solutions?

Those are just a few questions to get you started.

As much as possible, try to involve frontline and deskless workers - their expertise, observations and input - in your governance as much as possible.

Consulting employees who aren't usually consulted is a great way to boost engagement, too.


3) Streamline processes 

If something's being done manually, it's probably not being done properly.

To start, focus on the low-hanging fruit of inefficient processes.

Then, streamline these processes to achieve operational excellence.

A few good places to start are digitizing paper checklists, manual reporting and sending and receiving of work instructions.

What's more, digitization has been proven to increase productivity and drastically reduce speed-to-market - a double win.


YOOBIC Operational Excellence employee on a tablet

4) Measure and monitor

Decide on the metrics you'll use to measure operational excellence and process improvement.

A few examples:

  • Logistics delivery times
  • Speed of store team execution on display guidelines
  • Throughput for manufacturing teams
  • Number of locations visited per day by field sales teams

Use the SMART method to set your metrics, and monitor them continually. After all, you can't improve what you can't measure.


5) Empower Employees

An empowered employee has been given the tools and knowledge they need to perform to the best of their ability, using their own judgement as much as possible.

Operational excellence can't exist without empowered employees.

That's because it's employees who will implement the new processes and systems that make operational excellence happen.

To empower your employees, show them how what they do every day impacts the bigger picture - whether that be meeting output targets or making customers happy.

Because ultimately, anything any employee does in any industry should be an impactful, revenue-driving activity.

Empowered employees are engaged employees, and engaged employees are 15-20% more productive.


6) Choose a tool that makes it all easy

When your workforce is geographically dispersed, and many colleagues who work together may never meet in person (which, let's face it, is everyone these days), it's imperative to invest in technologies that jumpstart your journey to operational excellence.

The right tech stack for your organization will help you achieve these key objectives:


Examples of Operational Excellence Methodologies

Efficient processes create great results. Here are a few examples :


Lean is a system designed to maximize value while minimizing waste. Although created for the manufacturing industry, Lean is applicable anywhere and can be a useful tool for achieving operational excellence, because it's focused on eliminating anything that doesn't directly add value.


5 S

5 S is a workplace methodology created for a workplace that's "clean, uncluttered safe and well organized". 5 S is a system employees can use every day, just about anywhere, to work more efficiently and do more with less. 



Kaizen is another systematic methodology that - although frequently used in manufacturing - is applicable just about anywhere. Founded by Masaaki Imai over 30 years ago, Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates most closely to "continuous improvement" or "change for the better". The goal of Kaizen is continuous improvement everyday, everywhere and for everybody, which makes it an extremely useful process for achieving operational excellence. 


Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a "Disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects." To achieve six sigma status, a process can't product more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. Companies who successfully implement Six Sigma, notably General Electric, have saved billions of dollars. The goal of Six Sigma is being as close to near-perfection as possible by improving the way people do process improvement.  


Where to Start

Here are a few of the most inefficient operational processes that are prime candidates for an operational excellence makeover:

Retail & Hospitality

  • Store visits
  • Health & safety audits
  • Rollout of promotions, campaigns and product launches
  • Inventory and stock counts
  • Internal communications


Manufacturing & Logistics

  • Health & safety audits
  • Equipment inspection
  • Quality audits
  • Traceability controls 
  • Equipment inspections

Key Takeaways

If increased profits, data-driven decisions, happier employees and an improved customer experience aren't reasons enough to focus on operational excellence, consider that the adaptability of businesses in the future depends on making operations as efficient as possible. 

Some of the main benefits of operational excellence are:

  • Reduced costs
  • Increased quality
  • Better decision making
  • Happier customers 
  • Increased profit
  • Happier employees
  • A resilient, future-proofed organization

5 of the biggest challenges standing in the way of operational excellence are: 

  • Lack of visibility
  • Employee turnover
  • Lack of support for frontline workers
  • Manual, time-consuming processes
  • Resistance to change at all organizational levels

Steps and strategies organizations can use to reach operational excellence are: 

  • A mindset shift
  • Deciding on governance of the continuous improvement process
  • Streamlining processes
  • Choosing and measuring metrics
  • Empowering employees
  • Choosing the right tools and tech

Ultimately, operational excellence is a reflection of how well a business is serving its employees, stakeholders and customers. So why not start achieving it today? 


YOOBIC's all-in-one platform for deskless workers can help you achieve operational excellence by giving you complete visibility into operational efficiency, streamlining processes and connecting employees. 

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