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Dick Hackborn, who led HP into the printer business, defined a business leader’s job in short and clear terms: “To see the waves of opportunity and lead the company to ride them”.
As business leaders we need vision to see coming waves of opportunity and strategy to select the best position on these waves. However, vision and strategy alone are not enough. We must also lead the company or the business unit to ride the wave. That is the role of operational leadership.
In this chapter we position operational leadership where it deserves to be: as the prime driver for consistent lasting business success. It is an element in the management value chain in its own right. Its purpose is to lead our business to achieve its to-date goals consistently.
 Hackborn, Richard A., former HP executive
To lead your business to or at operational excellence in these times of incessant and rapid change you must do five tasks right:
In this new world of rapidly changing networked companies business leaders must recognize that their view of what they lead needs to change. They are not just leading organizations, hierarchies, business units or employees. (1)
Rather, they lead a value-adding network, goal determined, self-organizing and social – in other words: their business system.
The systems view recognizes the company as one element in its business ecosystem. Within that it is a self-organizing and self-creating living being gifted with both physical and social features, where one function can constrain the whole.
Before setting goals let’s agree on what is meant and the types of goals we typically see in businesses. In this chapter, we will review how operational goals differ from strategic ones and how the various goal types are connected causally.
Then, we make a bold statement: there is one and only one overarching operational goal in business: sufficient income. This one operational goal is the reason for being for all income generating business units.
Without agile operational plans our operational teams and we as managers work in a continuous fire-fighting mode. Reactively we cope with one obstacle after the other, continuously multi-tasking. This is the least efficient and effective mode of leadership.
Right operational plans (our surfboards) have a few features in common: they address constraints, are organized as causal trees and are represented on one single page.
Again a bold statement: top-down planning does not result in the best plans for all units of a company. Instead, we must set goals top-down, and design operational plans bottom-up.
You selected the wave to ride, set the operational goals and built the perfect surfboard, the operational plan. So far, this was work for your grey cells.
Now let’s go surfing and ride the wave! Let’s execute the plan.
The goal chart is ready to steer you. The operational plan is simple, focused on the essentials and ready for execution.
This is not surfing as usual. It’s the entire operational team surfing on one board. Everyone in the operational team must fulfill three tasks to ensure right execution of the plan.
An operational sprint has been completed. Time to check if we are doing the right things right.
We want to find the bad news: Where was our surfing not perfect? How well did we achieve the goals and execute the plans?
The answers to these two questions tell how to adjust or rebuild the operational plan.
Improve delivery of obligations? Leave the plan as it is? Fine-tune it? Rebuild it from scratch? Go deeper and find the constraint limiting our business systems performance?
The value added by a leader is the difference between what the members of a team can do individually and the result the whole team actually achieves.
(William (Bill) Russell, Executive VP HP)
Couldn’t the operational teams not just spin their PEC cycles on their own? Is there any value we add as operational leaders?
You bet there is. Our job as operational leaders comprises two tasks that only we can do: Lead the performance of the PEC (plan-execute-check) cycles and develop and sustain a culture of operational excellence.
The business system will never reach operational excellence if we fail to fulfill this duty. This duty cannot be delegated.