Best Practices

Best Practices


Chinas Belt and Road Initiative has been in the headlines recently as the trade war between the United States and China has continued to play out. This initiative, which was announced in 2013, aims to strengthen Chinas connectivity with the world, covering an expansive geographic scope and including efforts to strengthen hard and soft infrastructure and cultural ties. At present, it is estimated that the enterprise involves over 60 countries and trillions of dollars with a target completion date of 2049.

The initiative forms a foundation for the Made in China 2025 strategic plan, which discusses Chinas aims to move from producing cheaper, lower quality goods to higher value products and services such as in the pharmaceutical, automotive, aerospace, IT and robotics industries. While one may take issue with any of the particulars of these plans, we should be impressed by the long-term vision that appears to be backed up by significant actions.

In the U.S., we tend to shy away from such sweeping, long-term plans, although we have had some that were notable successes, such as the Moon landing as well as the legislative acts (the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard, to name a few) that successfully targeted U.S. dependence on foreign oil after the 1974 oil shock.

The U.S. tends to identify specific, shorter-term and more focused targets for change, often in response to an external event or threat, and then pass legislation aimed at effecting the change. The legislation may include targets that evolve and tighten over time and may require industries to develop improved technologies to meet the targets. One could argue that in the case of U.S. oil dependence, the outcome to date has far outpaced any expectations that may have existed at the start.

My reason for comparing these approaches is simple: As a company, you are free to be both China-like (strategic, long-term and broad) and America-like (focused, execution-oriented and encouraging of innovation) in the way you approach planning and goal setting. I urge you to consider that the short term, the medium term and the long term are all crucially important.

Lets lay out some typical examples of meaningful short-, medium- and long-term plans and goals. For the purposes of this column, I would define short-term as up to one year, medium-term as one to five years and long-term as five to 10 years. I encourage you to try to stretch even beyond 10 years in order to define a period in which you can truly see a major change in industry or competitive dynamics.

Short-term goals are typically the easiest to define. Remember to keep these goals SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. (See LubesnGreases November 2014 for further discussion of SMART goals.) I recommend an annual cascade process for goal setting, starting with company goals, cascading to department or team goals and ending with individual goals that are documented no later than February of each year. Some worthwhile short-term goals include:

Delivery of improved profitability both regionally and company-wide;

Customer satisfaction improvement;

Specific goals to grow in targeted customers or product lines;

Margin improvement;

Improvement in supply chain performance;

Achievement of targeted cost savings;

Rollout of a new product or service;

Improvement in employee satisfaction survey.

Medium-term goals are those requiring multi-year plans and resources to deliver and may include such things as:

Penetration of a new market, whether geographical, product line or service offering;

Execution of a project, such as one related to a new plant or technology facility;

Major effort to reduce supply chain risk, such as establishment of new suppliers, raw material substitutions and process improvements;

Development of new technology, such as an additive component or base oil, or for category rollover;

Significant organization redesign;

Major culture change definition and implementation;

Setting up sustainability targets and plans to meet them.

Long-term goals should generally stem from a strategic plan effort that engages key personnel, looks five to 10 years into the future to identify potential changes in the environment and addresses all stakeholders. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) type analysis may be useful at company-wide and at sub-levels. Multiple strategic options are typically identified, analyzed and risk-assessed to select the best options to pursue. Goals that may emerge could look like this:

Evaluate and implement significant merger and acquisition opportunities;

Outsource a major activity or bring it back in house;

Address a major competitor or industry threat;

Re-orient the company mission or brand in a major way.

Of course these are just examples of the kinds of goals that fit into the different time frames discussed. Consider incorporating into your annual goals specific actions that address all of these time frames.

It is clearly more challenging to maintain commitment and continuity with respect to long-term goals. The barriers include:

Changes in the management team that affect commitment to the long-term goals;

Changes in the external environment or assumptions that may necessitate reworking of the goals or strategy;

Shorter-term priorities that may affect resourcing and commitment to the long-term goals.

How can these be addressed? The first issue, with respect to the commitment of the management team, has to be dealt with by your board of directors and CEO, who must reiterate support for the long-term vision and strategy. The rest of the management team also needs to continue to get buy-in from new leadership in support of the longer-term plans.

If the assumptions or environment do change in a significant way, it is crucial to update the long-term planning work accordingly, involving key influencers and getting top-level buy-in to any changes. (Refer to my LubesnGreases January 2017 column on Making Change Stick.) Prioritization issues can arise and may temporarily affect attention to the long-term plan, but again, it is managements job to ensure sufficient priority and resourcing to make the long-term plan happen.

As you move into the 2020 goal-setting activity, remember that the short-, the medium- and the long-term all count!

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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