June 29 2009 09:43 AM

In a normal business environment, Operational Excellence for most companies means leveraging Lean Six Sigma teams to optimize and control critical processes. In this strained economy, however, it means leveraging the intellect and efforts of every coworker to maximize output and efficiencies. As a result, the focus becomes fixed on saving money and resources so companies can more effectively serve customers while taking market share from the competition. 

Internal Innovation
Like many industry leaders, CDW Corporation a leading provider of technology solutions for business, government and education, built an Operational Excellence team that focused on large process improvement projects that leveraged best practices from Lean and Six Sigma. Those projects, however, often took months to deliver sustainable results. In late 2007, at a quarterly CDW executive offsite strategy session we realized we had an opportunity to more effectively leverage the ideas and energy of every coworker to improve our processes. This realization gained traction internally and, as a result, was identified as one of the five corporate priorities for the following year. The first step in the process was setting up a cross-functional steering committee of CDW leaders to guide the way. With Mike Grisamore, Director of Customer Experience and Operational Excellence, and Rafi Sahakian, Sr. Manager of Operational Excellence, leading the charge, CDW's "Get S.M.A.R.T.•bCrLf initiative was born. 

Launched in February 2008, "Get S.M.A.R.T.•bCrLf — which stands for Save Money and Resources Today — was supported by an internal marketing program and coworker contests which resulted in the submission of over 400 ideas to the Get S.M.A.R.T. steering committee. Coworkers embraced the program and the potential to help CDW improve processes. Coworker ideas came in through online surveys, team huddles, suggestion boxes and larger department brainstorming sessions. The ideas were prioritized and projects were initiated across every area of the business. Some projects were as simple as ways to minimize printing which saved CDW thousands of dollars a year in supplies. Others impacted productivity and had soft cost implications, like cleaning up duplicate customer accounts in our database to improve sales prospecting. Some ideas had hard dollar impacts such as making a change in a freight insurance plan that saved CDW millions in the first year alone. 

The Next Level of S.M.A.R.T
In late 2008 the economy was worsening and 2009 budgets were getting tighter. CDW, like many companies, began shifting resources toward the strategic initiatives that would help us grow sales and take market share within the next six to 12 months. The Operational Excellence team saw this as a great opportunity to take the Get S.M.A.R.T. initiative to the next level. Working with the Learning and Development department, the Get S.M.A.R.T. concept was built out to include training that would certify coworkers across the business in the use of tools and techniques for process re-engineering and new process design. The program would take a group of coworkers and provide them with eight hours worth of training and weekly coaching from an Operational Excellence Manager to improve a process in their own area in six weeks and gain the knowledge to fix future problems without outside assistance. 

Leveraging the skill sets of the Operational Excellence managers, new S.M.A.R.T. Teams were created to tackle tougher issues across the business in real-time. To accomplish this, the Operational Excellence managers worked together to quickly evolve the pilot program and make it more scalable. Each Operational Excellence manager is now tasked with leading S.M.A.R.T. projects teams in every area across the business. The teams are still leveraging creative ideas and the energy of our coworkers while adding more rigors to the analysis and measurement of cost savings or productivity improvements. With this new focus, the teams have been able to further reduce the project cycle times to three to five weeks from the original six, and have improved the knowledge transfer to the team members. Many of the early completed projects are already seeing reduction in process cycle times of over fifty percent, significant productivity improvements and cost saving opportunities from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. 

Doug Eckrote is Senior Vice President of Operations, and executive committee member of CDW, a leading provider of technology products and services for business, government and education.