Operational Excellence: Your Company’s Future Depends On It

Good Is No Longer Good Enough

There’s no doubt about it, we’re seeing a dramatic reshuffling of the corporate world-order as the pace of change is reaching all-time highs. Companies (whether start-ups or incumbents) mastering the digital transformation are upending the competitive landscape and even creating new markets. Meanwhile, other companies unable to move quickly are left behind and becoming irrelevant. Excelling in the face of increasingly demanding pressures is now a “do or die” situation.

It’s no mystery that the aggressive adoption of technology has been at the heart of this transformation. In a recent survey, 93% of business leaders said technology is the primary driver of change in their markets. The use of technology has ushered in the “on-demand” economy as services like Amazon Prime, Uber, and Netflix have quickly become a common part of our lives. Getting what you want--immediately when you want it--is the new norm. And this on-demand expectation is bleeding into the enterprise space with the rise of chat tools like Slack, SaaS services like Zendesk, and utilities like Google Apps. Our expectations of turnaround times, whether customer or client, are increasing by the week. Added to this, our use of (or shall I say addiction to?) mobile devices has blurred our personal and work lives even more, making many of us both beneficiaries of and victims of this on-demand economy.   

The bottom line is that to survive, companies, teams, and the leaders within them must perform at an entirely new level of efficiency. At Wrike, we’re witnessing the rise of a new breed of managers who are able to marshal the latest technologies towards the steep demand of their customers and their companies. They are leveraging real-time analytics, work automation, and collaborative work to get 10X more done with existing resources. They’re borrowing from agile methodologies and figuring out how to scale these processes across their large teams and across their companies. The best managers are using these new work practices to drive cultural change in the organization, inspiring teammates, and building lasting competitive advantage for the on-demand era.

In a single phrase, these managers are achieving a new level of “Operational Excellence” that we believe is a crucial element of success in today’s economy.

Over the coming weeks, we’re excited to explore this concept of Operational Excellence, unpacking what it looks like and how customers are building the capabilities required to deliver in today’s economy. We’ve partnered with AirBnB, Spotify, Hootsuite, and more than 14,000 other customers who’ve completed a collective 68 million tasks, one thing is crystal clear: the path to Operational Excellence is a journey! We’ve assembled a number of best practices and developed an exciting methodology that’s helping thousands of teams build their capacity for excellence.  But regardless of where you are on the journey, the reward for those who make progress both professionally AND personally is significant.     

Let’s unpack some of the concepts introduced above…

Welcome to the ‘Age of the Customer’

Technology empowers businesses of all sizes to create captivating new products, services, and experiences. It’s enabling teams to do more with less, whether you’re servicing millions of end customers or collaborating with stakeholders within your organization. Mobile devices help teams break free from their desks and work from anywhere on the planet (and beyond). Software can be updated and deployed in an instant. Robots are helping companies be more efficient, cut costs, and make the workplace safer. AI and automation systems are not just managing machinery, they’re calling the shots for human workers too.

All of this innovation gives consumers an incredible array of options to choose from. And with more choice comes more power. We’ve entered a new era of empowered customers who have grown accustomed to incredible experiences and services and demand the same level of excellence across every brand and interaction. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, and Amazon built their empires by raising the bar and delighting their customers through excellence. If you think enterprise is somehow safe from that, think again.

B2B customers go home at the end of the day and enjoy B2C experiences. The effects of being exposed to those high-quality products and interactions don’t just disappear when they arrive at the office the next day. Yes, changes happening in the consumer arena are having a dramatic impact on the expectations and SLAs in the B2B world. Slack grew into a giant in the enterprise SaaS space not just because the product is excellent at what it does, but because the extended experience (the marketing emails, the technical support, and all of the moving pieces around the product) is excellent too.

Both B2C and B2B customers have a high level of expectation in 3 key areas:



Personalization: Personal attention and customization were formerly reserved for only a handful of top-tier customers, and usually at a premium. Individualized, white glove service is hard enough to provide to one customer, much less scale across hundreds or hundreds of thousands of them. But thanks to AI and big data, personalization at scale is possible for even small teams. Tailored experiences can now be built in real-time from customer preferences, habits, and past history.

  • Netflix is learning their customer’s viewing preferences over time and recommends movies they’re likely to love. They’re even experimenting with suggestions based on someone’s mood.
  • Stitch Fix is arming their stylists with data from each of their clients, from their favorite colors to what parts of their bodies they feel most insecure about, so they can assemble the perfect outfits for them.



Immediacy: The ‘always-on’ nature of digital products coupled with a rising connectedness with brands through social media has led customers to expect that companies should always be ready and able to answer questions, receive orders, and provide assistance whenever they need it. “Regular business hours” is a term that is quickly becoming meaningless as customers grow more familiar with 24/7 call centers and live chat.

  • A few years ago, Amazon’s Prime service gave us free shipping within 2-3 days. Now, even same-day shipping is feeling sluggish. Amazon has been experimenting with what they’re calling “anticipatory shipping.” Using their wealth of data about past orders, product searches, and buying trends, they’re now boxing and shipping products to customers before they even order.


Consistency: In the hardware world, advancements in manufacturing and supply chain management have enabled companies to build millions of complex electronic devices while maintaining an incredible standard of quality. This extends into the digital world as things like rapid translation, responsive design, and near-instant deployment of software updates all ensure seamless experiences across multiple devices. Armed with a glut of choice, customers are quick to abandon brands if they sense any drop in quality or encounter any significant lapse in service. Even a single bad interaction can prove costly to brands. Studies show it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for 1 negative one. Negative brand experiences are also shared twice as much as positive ones.

12 Positive Experiences vs. 1 Negative

  • Facebook has made huge investments into systems that increase consistency and eliminate any disruptions to the service. One example is their smart use of automation in data centers that ensure only .002% of their servers are in repair mode at any given time.

Deliver or Die: The New Normal

As the stakes get higher and delivering in those three key areas grows increasingly more difficult, organizations have to adopt a holistic view of how they are delivering products and services. Whether organizations and managers use the term “operations” or not, the fact is that teams across the globe are putting a renewed focus on how they are getting work done. They’re borrowing from old ideas (e.g. Total Quality Management) and combining with new principles (e.g. AI and agile) to establish a new norm in Operational Excellence.  

Some of the key operational challenges we see these managers facing include:

  1. An onslaught of SaaS systems. As the SaaS revolution deepens, critical customer and product data get spread across multiple, fragmented systems. Knowing what is where and when it was last updated can become a data management nightmare.

  2. Communications overload. Between chat tools, notification systems, and plain old email, the level of noise and distraction for managers and teams has skyrocketed. Critical messages--and the context and evolution of thinking behind them--are getting lost in the mix. Who hasn’t been frustrated from coming up empty-handed after searching for an important message in your email and chat tools?

  3. Analytics overload. Thanks to the digital revolution, collecting data comes “out of the box,” so to speak. Making sense of the data, however, is a daunting challenge. In addition to cleaning the data, analyzing it, and being able to produce actionable insights is difficult.

  4. Imperative to Scale. Most businesses that experience success need to be able to scale their systems and processes beyond a small team. Being able to nail the workflow, production, and quality challenges at scale is a whole different challenge than working in small teams. Being able to work collaboratively across geographies, for example, is a new normal for many businesses.

  5. Quality AND Quality of Life. Many managers can crank out more with more time in the office, but this is neither sustainable nor desirable. As the millennial workforce fully onboards, the expectation is that you can both do great work, and have free weekends. We think that’s not too much to ask!

Perhaps it’s no surprise that as these dynamics unfold, managers are feeling the squeeze more than ever. On the one hand, you’ve got customers demanding faster turnaround times (at higher quality), and on the other hand, you have a finance team demanding better profitability (e.g. lower budgets).  

Then, on the third hand (wait, is there such a thing?) you’ve got your team members, who want predictability in their schedule, not to mention the ability to produce quality work and seek a rewarding career path. Without their team’s support and buy-in, managers can’t expect to achieve any of their goals and production can wind to a halt. If not managed well, leaders can end up caught in the crossfire with an ugly “us vs. them” showdown between upper execs and overworked teams.

Agile Isn’t Enough

Over the last few years agile methodologies and processes, originally developed in manufacturing, have become the rage in software development circles and beyond. In fact, the concepts of small, autonomous teams working in bite-sized chunks can unlock tremendous value. Tightening feedback loops with customers and more quickly getting to a working product/service help teams deliver more quickly and with greater attention to quality. It can also be empowering for teams who all feel the collective energy of collaboration.  

However, Agile is not a panacea and does not work equally well for all teams in all situations. Having worked with many, many teams implementing Agile, we have a few high-level observations:

  1. Agile doesn't provide the strategic bird's eye view
    Agile’s strength of mitigating risk by keeping projects on time and within scope works particularly well for software development teams where code is the primary end product. Agile delivers well against tasks, less so against business outcomes. It can ensure work gets done but doesn't provide much guidance about how to determine if the right work was done. Operational Excellence requires visibility beyond a single team into how all parts of the org are delivering value together in a unified fashion.
  2. Agile isn't equally good for all projects
    Projects differ in size and complexity. Imagine building a spacecraft. Agile really doesn't work when you need years of knowledge-intensive research and the collaboration of thousands of people to build the right architectural foundation for further development. The coordinated efforts of the entire team, including many from other organizations, is a must in this case to produce an outstanding result.
  3. Agile can be tough to scale at the organizational level
    Progressive organizations can have a good number of teams successfully implementing Agile, but there are a lot of other teams from different departments (sales, marketing, etc) where Agile is not in use. Collaboration across all those teams can really challenge the organization's agility.

Overall, Agile has much to offer but needs to be tweaked and customized to every individual group. Leaders on the path to Operational Excellence are borrowing heavily from not just Agile, but Lean, Kaizen and other methodologies to suit their unique needs. They’re also implementing systems and processes that extend beyond their individual teams so that their efficiencies can extend throughout the organization. Having Agile teams and being Agile as an organization is not always one and the same

The Journey of Excellence: Everyone Can Improve

It’s our view that, like many of the best things in life, there is no such thing as being done. Operational Excellence is a mindset as much as anything. The path to excellence has many stages to it and is a journey in every aspect of the word. The decision to adopt software like Wrike, or the use of a certain methodology or the development of a given process are all steps along the road.  

What is important is committing to the journey and bringing others with you. The simple decision to commit as a team to pursue a better, more organized way to accomplish your work is your first critical step. We’ve mapped the many companies we’ve worked with into four stages so we can help teams understand where they are on the Operational Excellence journey.

The Four Stages of Operational Excellence

In the coming weeks we’ll spend more time discussing these stages and what they mean, but briefly:

  • React: This phase is marked by little visibility and few established processes. Work isn’t structured and typically conducted in email, spreadsheets, or other lightweight project management tools/systems. Companies on the path to Operational Excellence are able to identify and triage their biggest problems.
  • Organize: At this point, teams adopt a Single Source of Truth for their most important work. They establish a basic workflow that they train and roll out to the team. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Companies on the path to Operational Excellence are able to quickly and efficiently gather their resources.
  • Scale: During this phase, teams scale their success and extend their workflow across the entire organization. Companies in this phase use automation to help increase velocity and quality in the form of templates, custom workflows, and intelligent routing.
  • Optimize: The culmination of building and optimizing across the organization is pursuing a Culture of Excellence. Excellence and growth are sustained through managers who drive strategic value for the organization by following principles of continuous improvement.

Our Mission to Help Companies Build Operational Excellence

We at Wrike are inspired about the mission of Operational Excellence. While the challenges facing 21st century teams are daunting, the rewards for those who can overcome the noise and chaos are tremendous. We believe that building Operational Excellence as a core competency for your team and your organization is one of the most important endeavors you can undertake. In addition to dramatically increasing the service level for your customers, you will distance yourself from the competition by driving asymmetric returns for your company and your career.

Having partnered now with over 14,000 customers who have completed over 68 million tasks, we are inspired by what we see. Fearless leaders committed to The Journey are overcoming the odds, cutting through the noise, and achieving dramatic results for their teams and their businesses. We here at Wrike are devoted to the mission of helping companies build Operational Excellence. For over a decade now, we’ve partnered with thousands of businesses successfully advancing along the path, arming them with the tools and best practices necessary to become insanely productive.


Over the next few months, we’re going to share the proven methodology and framework teams can use to build a new standard of excellence in their organizations, culled from our work with companies like AirBnB, Spotify, Hootsuite, and others. We look forward to the journey together and look forward to your feedback!


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